Sunday, August 02, 2020

The valley between the mountains

"Gone to look for America"

The assistant at the hotel reception desk in Farmington was Navaho. He bore familiar marks of his tribe, even shielded by a mask. He was friendly, asked me where I was from and where I was going. “Made it here from Texas. Dallas. Heading to the Pacific Northwest. Hoping to make it as far as Elko, Nevada today. Ruby Valley nearby, great place.” His attention had wandered after Dallas. Maybe he had other things on his mind. In New Mexico, where Native Americans are 9 percent of the population, they make up 75 percent of the state’s deaths. And with Covid19, that number wasn’t decreasing anytime soon, from what I witnessed the day before.

I was in for a long haul today and needed to get on the road. I had several states to plough through.

Colorado came up fast and disappeared in the rear-view mirror almost as rapidly. I was cutting through a corner of the state. But the part of Utah which bordered Colorado was gorgeous, even if it seemed deserted at 9AM on a Monday morning.

So many years I’d gotten onto the freeway for work on a Monday, only to stop and slow and then wait for the bottleneck to clear up several miles down the road. Just so I could get to the office and try and figure out how to get more people to order and buy and drink Soave, Verdicchio, Chianti and Nero d’Avola. Those days are also in the rear-view mirror, fortunately. I’m free from the daily toll of convincing buyers and consumers that Italian wine is just as good as French or California wine. Now it seems more like folly than livelihood. For the journeymen and women knee-deep in the must of their careers, it isn’t, it’s serious stuff. Yeah, serious stuff.

Utah eventually flattened out around 11 AM. An inversion layer was building around Salt Lake City, as the temperature outside rose to almost 100⁰F. The shock of seeing (barely) a city in this desert woke me up. I drove on, past the never-ending Salt Lake, until I saw the welcome sign for Nevada.

I was close to Elko, and even though the day was not even close to being over, I decided to take a run around the town. I’d first been there in 1971. A college friend was from there, and one Thanksgiving I was invited to join her family for the holiday.

In August of 1971 I’d first set foot on Italian soil. The experience still lit me up, electrified me into November when we drove across Nevada, without speed limits at the time. It was nothing to go 100 mph on Interstate 80. And my friend’s Challenger, a 70’s pony car, was definitely up for the drive at any speed. This was better than the autostrada. Way better.

Once we arrived to Elko and settled in, my friends parents asked me if I’d like to go out into the country to their ranch for a day. Why not? I had no idea what awaited me.

Well, really no one was waiting. I was crashing their party. More like hindering their work. The ranch manager, Frank Temoke, was also the hereditary chief of the Western Shoshoni.

My recollection of Frank was that he was a strong person. He also didn’t talk much. But he was warm and friendly to this tenderfoot. They found a horse for me, Buck, who had a sweet temperament. It had been snowing, lightly, and the temperature was in the low 40’s. So, moving around on a horse kept my mind off of the cold.

After Frank and his crew rounded up a few cattle, he wanted to show me an area nearby. We were in the Ruby Valley, between the Ruby Mountains and Pearl Peak. This was long a Native American place. The white men who came did their best to subjugate the indigenous folks. In 1971 there was still a long way to go before there would be social justice. 50 years later, it’s as if we’ve gone backwards. And we have. But back in 1971, for one brief afternoon, I was riding Buck and following Frank to a grove of pine trees.

“We’ll stop here awhile. Frank started bending down to pick up little nuts. “Depa,” he said. “Maybe you know them as pine nuts.” Indeed. Pine nuts were important to Italians as well as the Shoshoni. Frank gather several handfuls, made a quick campfire and scattered them in a skillet to roast. And we sat out among the fire roasting the pine nuts, cracking them and eating them, while he told me stories of this place he called home country.

These ancient memories were emblazoned upon my psyche, and the photographs made that day aid in the recollection. Always with a camera. Wherever the trail may lead.

Back in 2020, as I pulled back on the highway, I looked over at the direction of Ruby Valley and the Ruby Mountains. How could 50 years have passed that fast, as the car reached 75 mph heading west, chasing the sun.

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