There is a field where my ancestors have pitched their tents. Maybe it’s like the squalid tent cities that housed the destitute during the Great Depression. But I can’t get a sense of those ancestors or what they need from me. The dead in my mother’s lineage are a tight-lipped bunch, zipped away from view. But I see the field in my mind’s eye, just as I saw Pueblo Bonito one recent evening while walking in the park.
I had been working that day on a memoir of sorts about my mother’s father, a man named Harry, whom I never met. In order to write my way toward Harry I’d written about the Anasazi ruins at Chaco Canyon, a national park in northwestern New Mexico. I first visited Chaco in 1984, about a year after I moved to Albuquerque. Pueblo Bonito is the remains of what had at one time been a five-story complex housing hundreds. I touched the rough-hewn sandstone bricks and the pine of the lintels and floorboards, still visible in places, that originated from trees hauled over 70 miles. The ruins bear some remarkably intact evidence of an advanced civilization: signs of government, art, religion, agriculture, war, gambling, cuisine. But no one can say exactly why the Anasazi abruptly abandoned Chaco and other similarly elaborate dwellings in the late 13th century. Was it climate change? Battle with a nomadic tribe? Internal political strife?
The riddle has captured my imagination, just as Harry has. Sometimes, while writing about him and his parents, who abandoned him when he was very young, I feel like a voyeur, listening in on a conversation I have no part in. Ghosts in their tents, barely audible. But they’re my ghosts.
After a hike that day in 1984, I drove my Corolla into the campground where vacationing families had already parked their RVs and left immediately. I spread my sleeping bag on a barren rock shelf. I had never felt so alone. Or maybe for the first time I realized that I always had felt that way. As the sun set, a vertical bolt flashed at the horizon—“lightning’s jointed road,” as Dickinson put it—and everything my eye fell on divulged its hidden sanctity. I grabbed a hunk of yellow sandstone formed by millennia of wind and rain into a classic Madonna shape. I kept it for years.
After writing about Harry and the Anasazi recently, 29 years after my Chaco visit, I walked with my dog at dusk in the park. I noticed the lights of a nearby apartment building shining in rows through the branches of nearly bare trees, and I saw it—Pueblo Bonito, resurrected, its civilization suddenly alight inside stone walls, its people spectacularly unaware of the ruination to come.
And I knew: I have to find Harry’s grave.