Peter Shelton

A Rock with Wings

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on March 16, 2020

I rode on four commercial airliners last week. Back when I made the reservations COVID-19 was barely a news blip. As the virus – and the viral news – spread, I considered canceling. But no, the big Wall Street meltdown and Trump’s declaration of a national emergency were still not visible on the horizon (though they were only a couple of days away), and I really wanted to see my daughter Cecily, in Colorado.

It had been too long. Grandson Boden, who is nine, was eager to show me his 180s off the freestyle jumps. Son-in-law Mike was newly home from six weeks of fighting fire in Australia, and I wanted to give him a hug, too.

On my outbound flights – Redmond to Phoenix to Durango – I was the only passenger wiping down his armrests and tray table. No big shift of consciousness had yet arrived in Durango, either, everyone still in a place of not quite knowing. People were self-conscious about shaking hands, but they did it anyway, furtively, or with smiles and sudden apologies. Cecily and I ran into an old teacher friend on a walk along the river trail. She joined us for a bit and on parting gave us big hugs, saying, “I think hugs are better for the immune system.” Cecily made Boden wash his hands after every session on the climbing wall.

I expected these things, hoped for them, hoped others were taking the pandemic seriously as I looked out my right-side window on the flight from Phoenix to Durango. The sun was setting behind me, on the other side of the plane, and there seemed to be a lot of haze/smog/murk in the air; I was disappointed I couldn’t make out identifiable landmarks below. Maybe I spotted a section of the Mogollon Rim – yellow sandstone cliffs highlighted by the low sun.

I thought I might see the White Mountains and the Sunrise Ski Area, owned by the White Mountain Apache Tribe. I’d skied there once, ages ago, on soft snow in stands of old-growth ponderosa. An Apache ski patroller we met declined when I offered my hand, explaining that he and many natives considered this unthinking white-man behavior. He understood where I was coming from, but said Apaches see physical contact with strangers as an invasion of their space.

The Whites remained hidden but then I did see snow on forested high ground and guessed we were passing over the Chuska Mountains, a landscape I knew primarily from Tony Hillerman novels. One of Hillerman’s two Diné detectives, Jim Chee, travels up into the Chuskas to gather firewood, and to learn a healing ceremony from his mother’s brother, his little father.

With the Chuskas receding I wondered if our flight path might take us over Shiprock, that dramatic, 27 million-year-old volcanic remnant sailing across the Four Corners desert floor.

And there it was! Just below us, glowing golden in the last rays of the day. Just as dramatic was the inky black shadow cast by what pioneer Americans thought of as an enormous clipper ship. I estimated it at three miles long, the top edge of the shadow drawing two elongate sails on the landscape.

I couldn’t help but think of my Uncle John, a geologist and pilot whose photograph of Shiprock – etched sharp in arrestingly clear 1950s air – was featured in my Geology 101 textbook. It’s an iconic image in our family and one of a score of John’s aerial photographs hailed as unreproducible – that is because pollution from jet exhaust, and myriad other sources, has rendered the views of these places permanently compromised.

My airplane had descended so that Shiprock’s 7,000-foot crest seemed clear and close enough to touch. It looked less like a ship than like the Diné description, “rock with wings,” referring to the legend of the great bird that brought the Navajo from the north to their present lands.

And then, as we drew away and my neck twisted as far as it would go to see out the porthole, a miracle occurred. In the final 60 seconds of direct sunlight, a ray found its way between the rock wings to spotlight a much smaller formation, a mini Shiprock a mile or more away in the center of the black shadow. This couldn’t have happened on many other nights – maybe not on any other night of the year – for the sun and the gap in the wings and the distant rock to line up just so.

For that minute it shone like a glowing coal, piñon most likely, in a campfire long after the others have gone to sleep, and the weight of the world, my viral worries, vanished.

One Response

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  1. Gerald Oyama said, on March 16, 2020 at 2:24 pm

    How that country boy could sing


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