On September 19, 1981, at the northernmost reach of Laughing Snake Mesa, a single Navajo or perhaps Hopi Indian stood with a straight back and recited the true words that had come to him from his tradition. Below him, at an average of 600 feet, though at some places it was close to 1,000, the desert stretched away further than the eye, a dry and empty place. Water was known 25 miles to the south, but only by the old Indians who most often these days seemed to have been swallowed by the tourists wanting turquoise and blankets and dolls . . . swallowed as well by the wonderful alcohol the tourist money brought and bought. Who could say if the old Indians really knew where the water was? Certainly no one would risk the walk across such arid, uninviting, and, finally, boring countryside, home of a few sidewinders in search of even fewer luncheon lizards, a little pinon here and there, a little cactus, and, now and then, the pools of red-brown silt blown down from the mesa-tops by a wearing wind. Nor yet did it seem worthwhile to waste the gas to travel south on old men’s words. Prob’bly bust an axle. To what purpose, verifying what old men said — old drunk men, feeble, who could no longer even straighten their fingers to point to the places where great events and small had taken place? There was no necessity to verify water 25 miles to the south of Laughing Snake Mesa, no need. After all, was there not water here, here where we stand? Why travel on the basis of what is only possible and very possibly impossible and most possibly an uninteresting Possible at that? Why waste the gas or even use the horse? Might the horse not step inadvertently into some crevice or crack, some secret animal place, and hurt its leg . . . and there you’d be, 25 miles from anywhere in the hot sun with nothing but sweat in your pits and your thumb up your ass. For what? For water? Hell, there’s a tap in the lavatory; help yourself — here’s the key. Man, no one explores in this climate. Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste your money. Don’t waste your energy.
So no one really bothers with the water 25 miles south of Laughing Snake Mesa. Not the drunk old men who speak of it with recollected joy, nor the younger ones with their Levis and large radios. Nor even, perhaps, the sidewinders or lizards (no one’s sure it’s there anymore after all), nor yet again the single Navajo or Hopi who stands an average 600 feet above the desert floor speaking the true words that have come to him from his tradition.
Nor certainly either, at 3,000 miles, the Manhattan-ite regaling his visitors in a highrise with summertime stories of turquoise and rugs and dolls for sale, then turning to the serious matters of war in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, pollution and the theft of national lands, assassination, murder, rape, and a mugging right down this very block . . . is there no place that’s safe? Where is the law? And where the respect that once allowed decent people to walk the streets of an evening nodding to neighbors and strangers alike, unafraid after a dinner that did not consist of Alpo Beef Chunks? What is the matter with People, anyway? Why don’t They understand? What’s the matter with Them?
The sun, long gone from Manhattan, dips gently and flattens itself against the horizon as seen from Laughing Snake Mesa. Alone, a single Navajo or perhaps Hopi Indian speaks the true words born of his tradition. He speaks them clearly, with a straight back, unafraid:
“All around me is beauty.” And then repeats, “All around me is beauty.”
Down below, where the water flows freely in the lavatory and the radios are tuned to country and western music and the dolls and turquoise rest under lock and key for the night, what he says cannot be heard. No more can the words be heard at 3,000 miles where a discussion of the “quality of life” is becoming strained with too many hors d’oeuvres and not enough solid food.
None is there to hear. The ear is not equipped to reach so far, thank God, and so he goes unknown, the straight-backed Indian on Laughing Snake Mesa. There is no room for questions near or far. Does he know if he is lying — lying with the true words that come from his tradition? Does he know? Does he not? Is there water 25 miles to the south or is there not?
How can it matter what is said so long as the meaning is clear?
There’s a tap in the lavatory.