Campo Santo

Posted on Thursday, September 15th, 2011 in Stories

It was in the high desert of Arizona just across the New Mexico border. We were traveling west as far as we could go, all the way to the Pacific shore. Our vehicles of choice for this particular adventure were a blue van filled with ice chests and the songs of Woody Guthrie and the Eagles, and in the lead a ragtop Corvette, as red as spilled blood, that rolled off the assembly line in 1964.

Bitter coffee and a greasy Gallup breakfast churned in our stomachs, and we stayed thirsty all the time. Bottled water and a sack of shriveled peaches and grapes helped a little. Those riding in the van sucked in waves of cool air pouring from the dashboard vents. In the convertible, we tried to stay comfortable with damp bandannas — cowboy air conditioners — tied around our necks, and dreams of motel swimming pools that became real every evening. It was coming up on the Fourth of July and there had not been any rain for a long time. Just lots of sun and record high temperatures that made front-page news all summer long.

We passed a traditional Navajo hogan made of logs and earth and saw a herd of sheep crowded into the slim ring of shade on one side of the dwelling. At the state line we paused at Chief Yellowhorse, a stucco teepee trading post, to look at the neat rows of steer skulls baking in the desert heat. As usual some tourists, this time a family from Arkansas, inspected us and the vintage Corvette. We bid them adieu and took to the road. The towns of Lupton, Allentown, Houck, Sanders, and Chambers came and went. Despite the strong sun it was a gentle ride. Like desert creatures we were adjusting to the climate.

Then off to the right, we spied the graveyard. At first it appeared to be an illusion, our eyes being tricked by the hot air near the surface of the earth. But we slowed down and saw it might be real. Without anyone saying a word, we turned around and went back. We stopped the van and the Corvette in the swirls of cinnamon-colored dust to pay our respects to those we never knew.

There was simplicity to the cemetery. No mausoleums, no bronze gates, no granite obelisks. There were no marble angels and lambs with fancy curls, or elaborate tombstones shipped from St. Louis. The graveyard had a natural beauty without relying on manicured lawns and paths trimmed with ivy.

We realized that this was consecrated ground. It was a campo santo — a blessed field. For twenty minutes, it became our oasis. The wood was weathered, and the inscriptions had been erased by too many seasons of dry winds and blowing sand. Now, only those who came on Memorial Day to pull up brittle grass, brush away tumbleweeds, and leave jars of wild blossoms knew for sure who rested there. Survivors returned on special dates, like feast days or birthdays and anniversaries. They usually came around Christmastime, to festoon the graves with plastic poinsettias and garland from Wal-Mart.

As we walked among the dead, no one spoke very much. The strong hot wind blew away our words and we stayed content with our thoughts. In our minds, we decided it was an Indian cemetery. We found a grave with a handmade sign that could still be read listing the name and the years of the man buried below and a rubber Mighty Mouse doll, like a smiling cherub, was wired to the marker. Nearby, we stood over another man who died when he was too young. From the barely visible dates we thought he had been a soldier in Vietnam. A china Madonna, intact except for her face, guarded the grave. We stood there and, as the living always does, passed judgment over the dead. We guessed that probably not a soul buried there had ever uttered a line of Hamlet or gazed at a Cezanne or listed to a single stanza of Handel.

But as we turned to leave, we choked on our presumptions. We realized that in the silent dirt were people who had been given other gifts. They had been enraptured by the oral literature of elders who tended sheep and molded pottery and wove rugs that were works of art. They had watched thousands of sunsets that no one could ever capture on film or canvas. They had memorized the poetry of the coyote’s song. The eternal wind was their benediction.

Back on the road we stayed quiet for many miles. Then without warning, the hot wind vanished and the sky changed color. A cool rain fell and broke the earth’s fever. We left the top down on the Corvette and opened the van’s windows. The steady rain stayed with us the rest of the day as we raced on.

That evening, around yet another motel pool, we toasted the dying day with glasses of water cold enough to make us shiver. It was decided that even though the graveyard we had visited was on the beaten path none of us were certain we could ever find it again. Perhaps it had been only a mirage after all.

But inside the motel room was an ashtray holding highway treasure. Mixed with the souvenir fragments of concrete from the Mother Road, the old buckle and buttons dug from the pavement, the bits of animal born, and café matchbooks was a piece of glass we had found buried in the dust. It appeared to be a tiny Madonna’s face. Her painted eyes were closed and there was just the trace of a smile. She was our best gift. She was the most revered of all our totems. It was Christmas in July. Our mirage was truly real.