These days I travel home mostly by train, down the loamy Willamette Valley, east from the Cascades into the sylvan Sierra Nevada, across the Great Basin and over the spine of the Rockies, where boundaries of time and territory vanish. Conifer limbs heave in response to ethereal tidings of cloudburst and insolation. My grandfather has been gone for 20 years. But I find him here in the high desert.
In the deep time beneath this age, there is a realm where knots of bone and sinew are bound together, forming the first human creatures. These beings scale an ancient tree into the sacred lake, Sip’ophe — the sipapu through which human souls drift between this sphere of reality and the gloom below, where the dead are like rain returning to a river. Tewa Pueblo Indians reveal that Sip’ophe is a brackish lake near the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where loose sands are swept by southwestern winds into the cradling base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Stone tools and animal bones discovered here suggest Neolithic Folsom Man pursued bison, camel and mammoth as early as 8000 B.C. Later migrating hunters of an Upper Rio Grande Culture were succeeded by the Hogan Builders, whose petroglyphs scar the volcanic cliffs of the valley’s Rock Creek Canyon. By 800 A.D., trade between nomadic montane bands of Utes and agrarian Pueblos to the south was established. Hides and meat were exchanged for squash, corn and beans. Beads of turquoise extracted from deposits in the valley were either traded or sacrificed to the gods. In time, the tumbling sea delivered the conquistador and wherever the Spaniard converged with the sun god’s people, blood was spilled. Some blood flowed south, some blood flowed north. The meeting of Spaniard and Indian, Octavio Paz wrote, signified “burial mound and marriage bed.”
In 1758, my maternal ancestry took root in the New World with the birth of a Mexican-born Spaniard named Victoriano Trinidad Márquez. Victoriano’s descendants migrated north, from Santa Eulalia, Mexico, among a group of families issued land grants by the Mexican government. In 1854, these families were led from Abiquiu, New Mexico, to the San Luis Valley. At the site of an ancient Indian village, on the north side of the Conejos River, the first permanent Conejos Grant colony, Plaza de Guadalupe, was founded.
Regional geography was complicated by the U.S. government’s 1868 survey of the 37th parallel, which repositioned the territorial boundary between New Mexico and Colorado until 1876, when Colorado became the 38th state. Legal quarrels ensued, brought on by greed and distrust between land developers and homesteaders over water access, mineral rights and timber usage. These sharpened divisions between the Indian, Anglo, Mexican and mestizo, between landowner, immigrant and peon.
While his younger siblings learned to read and write, my maternal great-grandfather, Ramón Gómez, studied the temperament of the San Juan Mountains, corralling his father’s sheep through the range’s arroyos and canyons. In 1927, Ramón married Virginia Lucero. Both their families arrived with the original Guadalupe settlers, and several of Virginia’s ancestors had been traded as Indian slaves.
Ramón went wherever he could find farming work — herding sheep in the mountains, planting root vegetables, or digging ditches in the hardpan. A daughter, Carolyn, my grandmother, grateful for her high school education, spent many autumn school days churning her hands in the soil until dusk, wresting spuds and beets and cabbages from fields her father had sown.
“Sometimes we would go up into the mountains to collect firewood in a horse-drawn wagon,” she says. “We didn’t have a car. We didn’t have money.”
Carolyn worked summers at a local tourist lodge and waited tables in nearby Alamosa. After high school, she cleaned rooms and worked in the kitchen of the local hospital. In 1947, she married Juan García, a World War II veteran and nurse whose older brother was married to Carolyn’s aunt.
Amid post-war economic growth, Denver, 235 miles north of the San Luis Valley, was transitioning from a sleepy cow town to a modern city. Carolyn and Juan were living in Alamosa with their three children when they decided a future in Denver looked brighter. On Labor Day morning 1951, they loaded boxes of clothing, dishes and cookware into a brown 1938 Chevrolet coupe. They took only what they could fit in the car. With their infant son and two daughters on top of blankets and pillows in the backseat, they said goodbye to the valley. My grandfather had a poor sense of direction. “He would get lost,” my grandmother claims. “So over La Veta Pass and through the mountains, I was the one who drove. All the way to Denver.”
I grew up speaking Spanish in a bilingual Denver public school close to my grandparents’ home. My Anglo father’s biology privileged me with an ambiguity of appearance that minimized encounters with the racism and bigotry I witnessed in Denver. A youthful disregard for history and ancestry provided me with the tools to construct a border against myself — a wall that separated me from an inheritance of culture and language, from the Indian, from the Mexican. Passing through the West, en route home, I wrangle with what it means to belong to the land, to be part Mexican in a country that is no longer part of Mexico. As the Hopi avow, I am related to the land. I don’t really know what it feels like to be an American, either.
In a dream that follows my grandfather’s death, everyone is familiar but I recognize no one. Passengers drift on and off the train as it wends through the prairie. The dream unfolds as a temporally distorted vignette, like a comic strip. My grandfather’s death seems a strange plotline, half-remembered.
“Are you here, Grandfather?” I ask. “Are you on the train?” His voice resonates like an off-stage actor’s: “I am on the train.”
“Where does the train go?” I ask.
“It goes on,” he replies. “It goes on forever.”
T. Edward Bak is an author and artist whose work includes Island of Memory, a graphic-novel biography of 18th century naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller.