I’ve thought and I’ve thought about everything, and just don’t want to think anymore. I just want to drive; follow this county road out onto the prairie; way out here were I don’t know where I am; where I don’t care who I am, or who I was, or who I’m supposed to be. This landscape is nice and empty. It feels really lonely. This is the right place for me just now. I want to get lost out on these long, straight roads.
It’s like plummeting through the void of space; vast and vacuous. The road disappears into a single vanishing point on the horizon. The fence posts emerged out of a visual vortex, an unattainable point, the womb from which reality is born, first emerging, infinitesimally small. The fence posts advanced toward me and then disappeared, flashing in my periphery. Steady like the beating of a drum. Pulses measure me out like a mantra, a repeated visual phrase, droning on, imposing a welcome numbness.
The prairie is shrouded in gray. Everything is dull, monochrome. Well, it is November. What a weird way to celebrate Thanksgiving. But it would be even weirder to be with people. I got a couple of invitations but I think they were just taking pity on me. It’s really strange, being alone today, but it feels right. Tiny snowflakes are falling on the windshield, milting and spreading into water droplets as soon as the hit. There’s a sign beside the road. It’s hard to read, weathered. (“Original Grave Site, William Bent.”)
I know about William Bent, the guy who built Bents Fort, the trading post on the Arkansas. So this is where he was buried. What an awkward place for a grave, in the middle of this plowed field. I can hear sound of flowing water. It seems pretty close. It looks like the farmer has to be pretty careful when he plows to avoid the gray granite headstone. God, I guess he died here. The sound of water that I hear must be the Purgatory River; El Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio. The River of Lost Souls in Purgatory.
I’ll bet his stockade home was right over there where that farm house is now. The river is probably just beyond those cottonwoods. The crows circling over head, all mingles with the snow are giving me the willies. They makes me think of that Van Gogh painting. The snow is really coming down now.
What is that? It almost looks like a fort or castle of something. It’s hard to make out through the snow. I’ve got to get closer.
Barbed wire fences; guard towers; it’s a prison. The Bent County Correctional Facility. This is surreal. It’s named after the old pioneer. I hear a voice. It seems to be coming out of the clouds; like the voice of God. It’s just the PA system at the prison. It’s hard to make out the words, they’re all garbled. Probably directives dictating the daily routines of the inmates’ lives. It’s all muffled, because of the snow, because of the heavy low-hanging gray clouds.
I’ll bet all of these stones were placed here by Bent’s family when they buried him. This one is so flat and smooth. It fits the palm of my hand; like one of those perfect skipping-stones I used to send skittering across the pond. This stone rolled down the Purgatory River for a thousand years, down from the headwaters in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It tumbling down past the coal mining camps, down through the cottonwood groves that were there before Trinidad became a town. This stone tumble down past the spot where the Drop City hippie commune would be built. It rolled through Pinon Canyon where the Army's has their Maneuvers Site, past all of those ruins of failed 1930s homesteads and alongside the petroglyphs of Cheyenne Indian camps. I’ll bet it’s been rolling and rolling for thousand years, maybe a million, gradually getting smooth and rounded as the river pushed it along, across the dinosaur tracks at Picketwire Canyon, through Red Rocks Canyon and cattle ranches and Hispanic villages. I can see it, tumbling down through the centuries, all the way to this place where the Purgatory flows into the Arkansas River; to this very spot where William Bent built his home, where he died. This stone was finally planted right here by a spring flood. At this exact place where they would dig Bent’s grave. I guess his relatives probably scooped it up in a shovel full of river rock, to shield his corpse from the coyotes.
Stumbling upon that grave site seems like the reason for my aimless driving around on the plains this Thanksgiving day. I’m in need of some sort of sacramental rite. It feels like I need to do something for my soul, some penance. I’ll carry this stone back up to the place where it came from, back to the crags where the waters of the Purgatory seep out of the mountain. I’ll walk upstream to the source; to the place where the river begins. I’ll make a pilgrimage.
It feels right to walk upstream. It will be kind of like walking backwards through my life, revisiting the course that has brought me to the desolate solitude of this chilly afternoon. I’ve been alone most of the time since I moved out. I’ve wanted to be alone. I’ve wanted to hide from everyone these past few months, since I packed up and left my home. Elaine and I had been together for twenty years. How long has it been now, since I moved out? Two months? I actually kind of like being holed up in the barn. It’s lonely, but being in the barn seems appropriate somehow. That’s where my time in Colorado began. In fact, I helped build that barn. And Boncarbo is also where Elaine and I met. I suppose it’s pretty lame the way I spend my evenings, listening to NPR for cryptic clues to the meaning my situation. It’s probably a little sick that I keep expecting some message from God to come to me through the radio. Too much sitting around I suppose. Too much thinking.
Yup, I need to do something physical; something for my soul. I’ve been spending way too much time feeding logs to the flames of the wood stove and thinking.
I’ll put this stone into my pocket and in the Spring I’ll come back here to start walking. The snow is coming down hard now; big heavy clumps. It’s like they’re laying a veil upon the landscape; a bridal veil. But it’s so dark; I feel like I’m dying; the heavy snow feels more like a funeral shroud. Okay, my pilgrimage has begun.