My Canyon Story: Slowly Discovering My Own Mind.
I often wished that the first time I entered the canyon had been on foot, but I let Gunther’s land partner, Sherri, walk alone, and climbed aboard his tiny four-wheeler with him.
The attraction between us was already quite obvious, all the way home from the bus station, and it was clear they both expected me to ride with him. At age 23, not quite 24, I’d had little practice discovering my own will and mind.
It was quite dark, and the river felt like a vast sea before us. I’m not sure if I noticed the last power poles that loomed above the rocks on both sides of the second river crossing. Probably not, knowing me back then. As a child, I was always slow to notice things, and I still am sometimes. Too much in my own little world of mind, skin, song, and eternal hunger.
But when I first entered the canyon, it was not the finality of the last power poles that had the greatest impression on me. It was the feeling that came upon me as we approached the third of the seven river crossings.
We called the third crossing The Gateway.
I felt it, that very first time, in the dark. But it was always better to experience The Gateway, when walking in on foot, as we often did.
Before one arrives at The Gateway, the adventure has already begun: the bumping drive down past the corrals, the careful avoiding of the rock that has ripped out many an oil pan, the shedding of the shoes at the first crossing, and wondering how deep the river might be that day.
Depending on the day, the long approach to the third crossing could be fairly stressful, or not at all, for someone who had had any practice at all crossing a river.
Most of our guests preferred to wear river shoes to get through, but not those of us who lived there. Barefoot, yes.
On foot, especially, everything feels a bit like watching a movie that begins with the credits. And then, when the third crossing appears before me, everything shifts.
At the third crossing, the cliffs on both sides of the river rise, hundreds of feet tall. The cliff on the north-facing side of the river looks to me something like a magnificent, otherworldly ship. A ship that is endlessly huge, with enough rooms in it to sleep multiple herds of elk.
Gazing up at these ancient cliffs before me, I can feel all the spirits of all the wild things that have ever existed, and still live in the canyon — mountain lion and coati, bobcat and coyote, wolf and deer, ringtail cat and soaring bat, bald and golden eagles, great horned owls and tiny elf owls. A flock of cliff swallows swooping as one, riding the warm current.
At The Gateway, there is a big curve in the river, and a place where we could climb up on the rocks and jump in from high above when the river was deep enough. Sometimes it was deep enough to do a dive. I only dove off it once, just to prove to Gunther that I could do it too.
To me, The Gateway felt like the entrance to another world. A world beyond time. I imagined that it was something like the calm that exists in the eye of a hurricane. As I crossed the river for the third time, I felt myself walk through a veil that left the storm of the outer world behind me.
No matter how many challenges and frustrations might exist in the eye of the hurricane itself, there was still this incredible sense of safety, protection, and ancient energy that was at the center of it all. A sense of Forever, which is something like what I always imagined Heaven to feel like as a small child. That’s what it felt like, crossing that third crossing. It felt like entering the land of the eternal.
Even throughout spring days when the wind was relentless, there was a quiet I felt there, a stillness, a sense that time no longer mattered.
The medicine people of the South sent the letter that I mentioned to Gunther, whom they called by a different name. They told him that he was an ancient being who was brought back to the canyon to protect it.
A Mayan emissary who wore five watches on his wrist, none of them still ticking, brought a jaguar testicle filled with copal to Gunther, with the letter I mentioned. He was sent by his elders, who knew of the canyon.
The letter told of all they knew of our home, which had once been a destination for far away travelers, and a place of ceremony for the tribes of the Mogollon, who called themselves the Sweet Medicine People.
The letter perfectly described the petroglyphs upon the walls of the Cave of the Red Wolf Mother. The cave was high up on the cliffs that faced the cave where we slept during the warmer months during our first five years together.
The copal that was in the jaguar testicle when it was given to Gunther was burned long ago, to pray back the ancient bundle that was taken from him at one point in time. But that is a story that is his to tell, I believe. There is healing that could happen between him, and I, and Tatiana, the woman we loved, and still love, before I believe that story might be told.
Tatiana and Gunther are still in the canyon, with the child they conceived five months after I left, a boy named Elder.
It was 11 years after my arrival when Tatiana first came to the canyon. She was 23 then, the same age that I was when I arrived. She brought her four-year-old daughter, Alice, with her. I picked them up at the airport in Albuquerque, having driven four hours barefoot, so excited to meet them both that I left my shoes at the first river crossing, after walking out at dawn, that morning, to make the journey.
I hope and pray that someday Gunther will want to tell his own canyon story himself. Especially as I don’t remember all the important details properly, and I would like to hear the way he frames all the things that happened there, and between the three of us, and with Alice too. But he is growing old, and is not exactly well.
When I was in the canyon, he believed that the story of the bundle was not to be told to anyone who had not crossed the river themselves, and earned the telling somehow.
Of those who crossed the river, there were only a tiny handful that heard the story. But in my mind, he did not go to enough efforts to allow the story to be earned. He was too busy allowing a different effort to take priority. The effort to sustain us, and to put things in place for me — and later, Tatiana and I — to remain in the canyon safely after his passing, took priority over all else.
And so, who was I to fault him for that?
And who am I to begin to tell the story myself, to claim the parts of it that I lived as my own?
I am a woman, slowly discovering my own mind. Finally, at the age of 51, as I live a mostly solitary life in the California desert, cooking outdoors, many miles away from my canyon home. It has been four years now since I left.
I am barefoot in the dark, with my own story, and the river and the canyon inside me as my compasses.
PS: Names have been changed.
Elka Wilder lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, writing, singing, dancing and cooking. She was a private chef before COVID-19, then she was cleaning houses before the Airbnb world shut down. Now she is finishing her memoir, along with a cookbook, and planning to build a cabin on a 10 acre parcel of land. She has ambitions to produce quantum physics meditations, teach little kids how to build fires and cook with wild foods, help women gain vocal confidence, work with elephants, and harvest acorns and stinging nettles every year. Maybe she’ll make an album or two, and a bunch of silly cooking & dancing videos… and probably a few more things she’ll dream up in the middle of the night, that will keep her awake until dawn.