Shiprock / Rock with Wings

Rock with Wings / Shiprock

Rock with Wings / Shiprock

If you drive through the four corners region of the Navajo Reservation along either highway 64 or U.S. 491, you will see a magnificent 1,800 foot tall rock formation rising out of the desert. It seems totally out of place in the surrounding flatlands. To early Euro-American pioneers the rock looked like a sailing ship with three masts. They called it Shiprock. Sin e white people were the ones making the maps, the name stuck.

Sunset / Shiprock

Sunset / Shiprock

Long before Europeans entered the area and turned the Native American’s lives upside down, the Navajo (Diné) called the formation Tse Bi dahi (Rock With Wings). According to one of the legends, the Diné originally lived in a cold land in the far north and were being harassed by a much larger hostile tribe.

When the shamans prayed for deliverance, the ground beneath the tribe became a huge bird that transported them on its back. It flew for a day and a

Monster Slayer and Born For Water. Navajo Hero twins

Monster Slayer and Born For Water. Navajo Hero twins

night before landing at sunset where Shiprock now sits. According to some of the legends, the tribe lived on the rock after being transported and only left to tend crops and fetch water. Disaster struck when the trail was destroyed by lightning. Many of the tribe were trapped on the mountain and died. The Diné forbid climbing on the haunted mountain so the ghosts (Chindi) of the stranded tribal members won’t be disturbed.

Everything was going pretty well after that, until Cliff Monster, a giant dragon-like

One of the Hero twins, Rock art.

One of the Hero twins, Rock art.

creature, climbed onto the Bird’s back and built a nest, trapping the Bird. One of the hero twins, Monster Slayer killed Cliff Monster but not before the bird was mortally wounded. Monster Slayer cut off Cliff Monster’s head and threw it far to the east where it became today’s Cabezon Peak. Then to keep the bird alive Monster Slayer turned him into stone, where he remains to this day.

Tony Hillerman’s book The Fallen Man begins when a white rock climber falls to his

Monster Slayer represented on a weaving

Monster Slayer represented on a weaving

death off of Shiprock. Climbing has been prohibited everywhere on the Reservation since 1970, but private land owners and grazing rights holders often grant access for a fee.

My soon to be released novel, Trial Separation (working title) starts off at Shiprock. It is easy to see why this stunning rock formation is important in the Native American Culture, and why it is a central feature in regional literature.

 

Museum of the Mummies–Guanajuato

Me posed beside a monument in a Guanajuato  cemetery.

Me posed beside a monument in a Guanajuato cemetery.

I like graveyards. There’s a funeral or at least a burial scene in practically everything I’ve written. I’ve visited famous cemeteries all over the world, including: the St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans, the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the Highgate Cemetery in London, and, of course, the Pyramids of Egypt. I like the mysticism, and the elaborate tombstones, and the rituals that are part religion and part performance art.

Many people share my fascination. Otherwise they wouldn’t spend so much time and energy—not to mention money—on funerals and crypts, and all the fantastic graveyard art, especially in the old world cemeteries. Burial is not so much a way of disposing of the dead as it is a last right of passage, out of this world into the next—the

Museum of the Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico

Museum of the Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico

final act of the dearly departed after which everything will be different because they are no longer be around.

Every culture has burial and funeral customs. Some of them are solemn and some of them are just plain weird, but everybody has them—even New Age agnostics—and on a very basic level they are all the same. Whether we bury our loved ones under a twenty ton slab of granite or we scatter their ashes on the Appalachian

Standing room only in the Museum of the Mummies

Standing room only in the Museum of the Mummies

Trail, we do something that is meaningful to us, and (we hope) will be meaningful to the loved ones whether they actually know about it or not.

When I learned about the Museo de las Mommias in Guanajuato Mexico I thought: “This is right up my alley.” I thought Mexican mummies must be the product of some ancient Central American pre-Columbian culture. They had pyramids didn’t they? So maybe pyramid cultures came equipped with mummy technology.

Ignacia Aguilar (who may have been buried alive)

Ignacia Aguilar (who may have been buried alive)

Imagine my surprise. The Guanajuato mummies weren’t the product of an elaborate embalming routine. They were people who were buried in crypts roughly between the years of 1830 and 1958. Most of them died in a cholera outbreak in 1833.

In 1865 the city imposed a local tax for burials. A family could pay a one time fee of 170 pesos and be done with it. If they didn’t have 170 pesos to spare they could elect to pay the city a 50 pesos per year. If they neglected to pay, for any reason, the deadbeat dead were removed from the crypts

Fetal Mummy--advertised as the world's smallest

Fetus Mummy–advertised as the world’s smallest

and stored in a warehouse. Most of the bodies had disintegrated, but about 2% of them had mummified naturally.

The cemetery workers started charging Mexican tourists a small fee to come and view the natural mummies. Bits and pieces of the bodies were taken by tourists as souvenirs. Over the years, the warehouse became a popular destination and eventually the warehouse was turned into a museum.

 In 1958 the tax law was changed and no more bodies were disinterred but by then the museum was going strong. It gained popularity in 1970 with the release of a movie, Santo Versus the Mummies of Guanajuato, starring the popular masked wrestler Rodolfo Guzmán guanajuato.jaramilloHuerta.

The mummies were the inspiration for the short story, “The Next in Line” by Ray Bradbury. In the introduction to his collection, The Stories of Ray Bradbury, the author wrote: “The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”

The mummies have gone on tour in the United States and have been shown in The Detroit Science Center in 2009, The West End Dallas Market in 2011, and The Natural Science

Mummy dressed in modern clothing

Mummy dressed in modern clothing

Center of Greensboro in 2012. The collection includes a fetal mummy (advertised as the world’s smallest) and the mummy of Ignacia Aguilar (who may have been buried alive). Most of the mummies are naked. A few are wearing socks (with shoes and without). Some are fully dressed in what appears to be fairly modern clothing.

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. You can read my fiction and make the comparison yourself. Major scenes in Owl Dreams take place in a cemetery. There are cemetery / burial scenes in Magic Popsicle Sticks and Trial Separation (to be released soon by Pen-L Publishing), and the streets are literally littered with the dead in the Kindle short, “Messages”.

 

Caprock Canyon

Caprock Canyon

Caprock Canyon

If you drive through the Texas panhandle you’ll see miles of empty grasslands, feedlots that make you consider becoming a vegetarian, and small towns that look like they could have been where The Last Picture Show was filmed (actually that was Gatesville—nowhere near the panhandle). The scenery is mostly a boring monochromatic yellow interrupted only by billboards advertising free 72 oz. steaks at the Big Texan restaurant.

And then you run across the canyons. I’ve blogged about Palo Duro Canyon already.

Caprock Canyon

Caprock Canyon

It’s a stunningly beautiful erosion disaster that inspired Georgia O’Keefe to paint western landscapes. It was also the backdrop for the end of the Red River War. Canyons like Palo Duro seem have no business in the Texas panhandle. I certainly didn’t expect to find a second one. But about a hundred miles Southeast of Amarillo near the small Texas town of Quitaque (pronounced Kit-i-kway) there it is—15,314 acres of the most beautiful erosion disaster I’ve ever seen.

Caprock used to be a great place to hunt buffalo. Indigenous people killed thousands of them there starting about 10,000 years ago. That was before horses and even bows

Caprock Canyon

Caprock Canyon

and arrows. Folsom man (named for the Folsom N.M. where their lance points were first discovered) took the animals with spears and atlatls. They also stampeded them over deadfalls. The bison were just as surprised to find canyon in the middle of the grasslands as I was.

The Comanche, the Kiowa, and the Southern Cheyenne moved into the region after horses were introduced by the Spanish. They terrorized the local tribes and were pretty much running things by the time white settlers started moving through the area. The plains Indian era ended when Colonel Ranald (Bad

Caprock Canyon

Caprock Canyon

Hand) Mackenzie recruited the Tonkowa, Ute, and Deleware to help him kill off the plains Indians’ horses and leave them on foot and undersupplied just as winter was setting in. The horse slaughter took place in Palo Duro, but brass cartridges and even artillery shells have been found in several locations in Caprock.

I have to believe Colonel Bad Hand Mackenzie felt bad about killing all those Indian ponies. Ten years after the Red River War he was discharged from the army for “the general paresis of the insane.” Quanah Parker, on the other hand, became the chief of all the Comanche’s on the reservation. He went on hunting trips with

Official Texas Bison Herd

Official Texas Bison Herd

President Teddy Roosevelt and a founded of the Native American Church. While he was busy becoming one of the wealthiest Native Americans of his time, Quanah Parker had time to marry eight wives and have twenty-five children.

I gave many of the Comanche chief’s personality traits to Archie Chatto, Robert Collins and even Hashilli when I wrote Owl Dreams. I used him again in two new novels that will be coming out later this year, Magic Popsicle Sticks, and Trial Separation. I’ve also taken bits and pieces of Rand (Bad Hand)

Caprock Buffalo

Caprock Buffalo

Mackenzie’s life—his mental challenges and his physical handicap—for several of my stories. You’ll recognize them now that you know. When I’m borrowing from reality, I like to borrow from the very best.

Buffalo are grazing in the canyon again. In September of 2011, 80 descendants of the original southern plains bison herd were released in a 700 acre protected area of the canyon. No Comanche’s have been seen in he area, but I wouldn’t count them out just yet.