Sara Whitestone, Anasazi Dream
There are three main routes west across the Rockies. When I drive the southern or northern interstates, the climb is so gradual, and the landscape is so slow to change, only the elevation markers convince me I am steadily working my way higher. But on most of my cross-country treks, I take the middle route—through Colorado—where, far across the plains, the mountains rise all at once, promising a welcome alteration from the hours of unbroken prairie I am passing through.
Perhaps I prefer fast transitions rather than slow. And as I drive, I wonder: No matter how much time each change takes, must there be—at the point of the turning—always both positives and negatives? On this trip it seems so; the grandeur of the peaks is paid for by the difficult ascent, and my high-mileage camper complains as I chug through the passes.
When I reach the Colorado plateaus, I make a stop at Mesa Verde. As its Spanish name implies, this tableland above the cliffs is flat and green—surprisingly green in this early summer. Maybe it is this fertility that drew the Ancestral Puebloans here around 550 A.D. and then slowly turned them from nomadic hunters to established farmers.
But by about 1300 A.D., these cliff dwellers had left their homes to join their relatives in Arizona and New Mexico. As I walk the trails to the empty Colorado dwellings, I try to imagine a thriving community moving through the interconnected houses under the protection of overhanging cliffs. But it is only silent here.
On a path that rises steadily among spruce and juniper, I glimpse the opposite canyon wall through the trees. Then, rounding a corner, I am confronted with Cliff Palace, the largest of the Pueblo dwellings, built into a ledge. A guide takes me on a tour. Through each of the aesthetically designed sleeping rooms, storage areas, and worship kivas, he points out the artistic pottery and complicated basketry that was left behind. Clearly, the Puebloans cared as much about beauty as function. I would have liked to meet them.
But they are not here. What pressured them to alter their way of life? What motivated them to change? In the moment when they turned their backs on their homes and began to walk toward the south, did they mourn? If their move had been forced on them, did they become bitter about losing what they had left behind, or instead, were they able to look forward to something better?
When I become pregnant with my daughter, Rachel, the changes to my body were so gradual they didn’t require me to alter my routine much. I’d had very little discomfort for the whole nine months—until my water broke in front of everyone at my baby shower. Then the mountains and valleys of pain were immediate, quickly becoming so intense I thought I would be ripped in two.
And really, I was being ripped in two. It’s purposeful that doctors call the height of childbirth transition—that moment when the body is poised to split one life into two. But thankfully the pain didn’t last long. From the start of my abrupt onslaught of labor to when Rachel’s tiny, warm body rested on my chest—and all those feel-good oxytocin hormones began to flow through me—was less than two hours. Again, maybe fast transitions are best? And isn’t moving through acute pain easier when we are anticipating good (like holding a new baby girl) on the other side?
But only a couple of days after my intensely exquisite experience of birthing Rachel, my husband forced another change onto me. He announced we would be having no more children. I had always pictured our family filled with at least three little ones—and maybe even with an adopted son or daughter as a fourth. Before our marriage, my husband and I had talked of these plans often—so often that I had fully expected my desire to come true. But instead, after Rachel was born, my husband said he was already finding the two children we had more than he could manage. He’d had enough. He didn't ask me what I wanted; he just stated—for both of us—what was going to happen. In response to this, I moved into a state of mourning—grieving the loss of a third child as if that baby were real.
Was there also a moment on those high mesas when the Puebloans of long ago just had enough? Scientists say that the pollen markers at the time the Puebloans moved south show the weather on the plateaus had turned colder. Perhaps the tableland was no longer true to its name—no longer verdant and vibrant. Had these people, like me, been forced into a transition which pushed them to find new life elsewhere?
For three whole months after Rachel’s birth, I mourned the loss of the family I had expected to hold. I would never carry a child inside of me again. I would never again be the mother of an infant. And all the while as I grieved, I held the tiny, new life of Rachel in my arms. This real baby girl—right then, right there—was begging me for my full attention. And so was her brother, Nicolas, who at two and a half was vivaciously happy and (unceasingly) active. Was being stuck in this negative transition of wishing for something I couldn’t have holding me back from enjoying all that I did have—right then, right there?
But after being miserable for a while, I understood that by allowing self-pity, I was holding onto the expectation of what I wanted my family to be, rather than accepting what it really was. In this, I was choosing to allow this disillusionment to darken my present. And even worse, I was taking this negative thinking forward into my ongoing actions and attitudes with my family.
When we transition while still holding onto the bad of the past, aren’t we simply ensuring our future will be painful as well? When I finally forced myself to move from disappointment into fully enjoying my two, real children, I left that unhappiness of false expectation behind me for good.
The sun dulls the green and draws the red out of the earth as I pull my camper away from Mesa Verde and toward the east. The tableland is empty, but not desolate. As I drive the downward slopes of the Rockies, I imagine the Puebloans, purposely turning away from their cliff homes—not reacting negatively to change, but instead, redirecting themselves toward a better life.
In this, history shows my imagination to be valid: The Puebloans didn’t just survive their great migration south, they conquered it. And some of their ancestors in New Mexico and Arizona are even now keeping their 7000-year-old culture intact.
And I wonder, do they enjoy their ancestral memories enough that this imaginative engagement in the past colors their pleasure in the present? As I drive, the sky turns from red to dusky blue, and all the greens in the landscape are—in this moment—vibrant once again. I pull the camper over to savor what this lingering gift of light has sent me.
And at the peak of this transition, I balance myself—poised between looking back and moving forward—re-living, mulling over, thinking through all I have learned.
And I remember my newborn baby, wet and warm, against my chest—engaging in this reflection without sorrow that she couldn’t stay tiny and without disappointment that I didn’t suckle a third infant at my breast. And the muted memory of my daughter’s tender skin against mine mixes with the velvet of a Colorado sky—a sky that is slowly transitioning from twilight to night, from sunlight to starlight.
And I think that maybe, after all, long transitions are best—when they are soft and warm, and when we follow them toward their promises of good.