Notes on Portal Canyon

Nevada Narrative
by Mary Sojourner Apr 22, 2011
In a slot canyon somewhere near “the vampire lairs of Vegas,” Mary Sojourner finds an unexpected visitor, leading to questions about places and what’s “holy.”

I AM IN the heart of the earth, a delicate canyon holding dried grapevines, petroglyphs, cigarette butts, bottle caps and a trickle of water no wider than my hand.

I won’t tell you how to find this place.

Know that it is within range of the vampire lairs of Vegas and Laughlin. Know that from the throat of the canyon, you can watch a three-quarter moon fall slowly to a lilac horizon. Know that I am here to mend a web. And, to say, “Thank you.”, the two tasks inseparable.

I set my bundle on a dark boulder. My night-sky bandana holds sage from Butler Wash, a glass egg, a chunk of garnet, a chert scraper, bottle of snow melt from Red Mountain and four hornblende pebbles from the same place. Some of this will go home with me; some will not. I prepare to light the sage, turn to the West, to the home of She Who Eats That Which is No Longer Necessary, and see a woman walking toward me. She is pale, dark-haired and slender. She wears stone-washed jeans, expensive leather boots, a faded jacket, and carries a bundle of silver sage.

Bear with me. This is not about Two White Chicks Sitting Around Talkin’ Crystals. We look at each other. “Oh,” she says, “we both have sage.” I am pissed. I want to be alone. I have work to do, water to leave, water to gather, pebbles to bury in the sand. She waits. Her eyes are hugely sad. “Is there water up there where you are?”

The words leave my mouth. “Do you want to come in here?”

“But, you got here first.”

“It’s o.k.” I wonder why I say these things. “Come in.”

She climbs into the boulder chamber. “I don’t know if I should be here, but it must be o.k. if you invited me.” She looks at me with those friggin’ Seeker eyes. She tells me her name, that she lives in California, that she is so happy to finally be here, though she is always afraid when she knows it is time to come here and she had to make herself get up from the slots to come here and she didn’t want to, but now…

I nod. “I know exactly what you mean.”

We light our sage, give each other smoke, give smoke to the rock and silence and light. I tell her I am grateful there is water here because a month ago there wasn’t.

“What could have happened to it?” she says vaguely. I know she is used to asking questions for which she doesn’t hear answers.

“You know,” I say.

She shakes her head.

“All the development, the casinos, the malls, the houses—this is desert, the water has to come from somewhere.”

Her eyes don’t meet mine. She is gone. I stop talking.

“Did you come here so you could stop gambling?” she asks.

“No,” I say. I wonder if she knows something I don’t. She tells me she has worked with an Indian shaman, has re-discovered her Mexican heritage, is wondering about her Indian roots.

“How,” I say, “do you take care of the earth?”

“You mean these holy places? I give tobacco, my prayers, my thoughts…”

“What else?”

She looks puzzled. “What do you mean?”

This woman is at least forty-five years old, intelligent, curious, knows to come here, knows that holiness exists and a place can be holy, and she has no idea on what she lives. She could be the woman I was a decade earlier.

“Where you live,” I say, “are there holy places there?”

“I keep looking,” she says sadly, “but I can’t find them anywhere.”

“What’s around your house?” My voice is harsh.

“What do you mean?”

“Is there a lawn, a garden, flowers? How do you take care of them?”

“Not enough,” she says sadly.

“Well, then, what’s under your house?”

“I don’t know.”

This woman is at least forty-five years old, intelligent, curious, knows to come here, knows that holiness exists and a place can be holy, and she has no idea on what she lives. She could be the woman I was a decade earlier.

“Under your house,” I say fiercely, “what is under your house?” She looks at me as though I have the big mystical answer that is going to change her life. There is a long silence. I want to cry.

“Dirt,” she says. “There’s dirt under my house.”

“What else?”

“Nothing,” she says, “It’s just a suburb, a sub-division.”

“What about rock?” I wave at the glowing rocks around us. “What do you think it was before it was a sub-division?”

“Yes,” she says tentatively, “rock and maybe water and maybe animals…”

“All of that,” I say, feeling like a bossy meld of John Muir and Shirley Maclaine, “is no more or less holy than this place we’re standing in.”

“Yes,” she says, “I see. I see what you’re saying.” She tells me she knows she can do something for the lawn. She pauses. I know she wants me to ask her what that is, as a child might come to you with precious new knowledge and want you to honor that knowledge with your questions.

“What?” I say gently.

“I can let it grow.”

We both laugh, a sound as soft as the light going gold around us. And, suddenly as we have begun, we are finished. I hand her my sage. She hands me hers. She turns and is gone. I finish what I have come to do.

A day later I am driving toward the mountains of my home, the sun’s last copper burning in the rear-view mirror. I am thinking about the gifts she gave me: silver sage, questions and a meeting with a woman much like my younger self, a woman who loved the earth not quite knowing she lived on it, a woman at last on her way home.

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