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once more, my desert

May 18, 2012

Sitting here in my chair by our big bay window and looking across the sage and bunch grass to the mountains, I remember the first time I came to New Mexico.

I was teaching third grade at Dover Avenue Elementary in Dover Ohio when I felt the Lord calling me to teach at the Rock Springs Navajo Mission. I had one year of experience in the classroom. When it came time to sign my continuing contract with Dover Schools, I simply couldn’t do it. I told my principal I was going to go teach on a mission school instead. He may have thought I was a little strange, but he was a Mennonite so I believe he understood to a certain extent. He suggested that I take a leave of absence instead of just tossing the contract down the drain.

That worked for me.

Sandy Wendell said she would go with me to the mission and work in their bible school. My parents, even though I was over 21, were worried about the two of us going alone. I think Sandy was maybe 17. Mom talked to Sister Grace Henry about it and they came up with the perfect traveling companion. I wish I could remember her first name but she was simply ‘sister Blackwell’ to us.

A tiny fantastic woman, she was the best example of holiness they could have sent with us. She was jolly and a fun friend. She never lost patience with our silliness and she was always ready to stop at some roadside attraction that caught our eye. She’s gone on to be with the Lord today, but she has stood beside sister Green and sister Craig as an example for me in my walk with God.

We all enjoyed the trip through Indiana and Illinois, but the landscape was about what Sandy and I were familiar with in Ohio. Sister Blackwell had made the trip to NM with sister Henry before, but she was willing to look for the Mississippi and the famous Arch just as much as we were.

It wasn’t until we’d crossed that river and started southwest across Missouri that the land began to change from flat rolling land to places where the Ozarks rose up to meet the sky. It was exciting, but only a little taste of what was to come.

Oklahoma fell back into flat rolling grasslands and farm land. Sister Blackwell told us stories of campmeeting in Moore and Coffeyville and ‘introduced’ us to the saints in those places- brother and sister Chancellor, the Januarys, the Jantzes. She told us of brother Turnbow and other ministers. The miles across Oklahoma can be long and a little boring, but she kept them interesting. And her love of the Lord ran through all her stories. He life hadn’t been easy. She had had more than her share of heartache, but she had come through it all with the joy of the Lord.

Oklahoma is famous for the tornados that tear across its flatlands. We had smooth going though until we reached the western line. There we began to get into dark skies and nasty winds. We were in the middle of no where so we just kept going.

As we crossed the eastern panhandle the dark skies and wind began to pour out a load of rain. The blowing got worse and finally I followed two or three other tourist off at a lonely, but convenient exit.

Looking back I know it was the worst thing in the world to do. The exit led to a deserted gas station sitting on a little rise! Of all the stupid places to park during an incipient tornado that was about the worst!

Sandy and I were excited about the hail stones that were bouncing off the hood of the car and bouncing on the ground all around. Sister Blackwell pointed out that they could dent my car! Mercy. That made me pull under the long v-shaped shelter over the old gas pumps! The roof protected my car finish, but it would have done absolutely nothing to protect us from even a little funnel cloud!

I remember when Sandy and I were exclaiming over the hail, sister Blackwell told us, “Girls! You should stop being so excited over the hail and be praying for the Lord to protect us. This is tornado weather!”

Sandy and I had no idea how dangerous a tornado could be. I’m sure to this day that it was sister Blackwell’s prayer that took us through that weather. When the rain stopped we went on down the road just a few miles to Amarillo, Texas. I stopped there at the first gas station because I’d been worrying all across Texas that we were going to run out and be stranded.

The nice attendant made friendly conversation like all the people do in OK and TX. “Where y’all coming from? Nasty weather over there to the east. You might wanta stay here in town for a while.”

We told him we’d just come from Oklahoma. “Did you see that tornado that went through about the state line? It was nasty!”

No, we hadn’t seen it. We’d been sitting on top of a hill under an old gas station shelter! Thank you, sister Blackwell, for your prayers.

Pulling out of Amarillo, we began to see the southwest desert. The green, green grass turned to a pale gray green punctuated here and there by stalks of choya and sagebrush—not much, but only here and there. As we went further and got into NM, the gray-green grass gave way to miles of sagebrush with only bunches of pale green grass visible around their bases and between them. Other places the bare dirt ran for large spaces.

There were rising slopes that suddenly broke into deep canyon-like washes with rocky sides and, where you could see down, sandy bottoms. The washes alternated with acres of flat sagebrush and began to be spotted with juniper from time to time.

The first real ‘mountain’ I saw was Tucumcari Mountain sitting off to the side of the interstate.

tucumcari mountain

Tucumcari Mountain

Now we see it only as the first signpost of the “real” New Mexico, but then it was exciting and sister Blackwell told us there was an Indian story connected with the name, but I don’t believe she told us the story. I don’t think she knew it. I didn’t learn it until later.

The desert was a desolate place to my mom. Sister Blackwell was just a little more admiring of it that mom was, but she was still no enthusiast. I liked it. I didn’t come to love it as I do now for a couple years.

Now I sit here and look at the Manzanos and the sage brush between here and there. Even the sand blowing across the windowsills and in every crack, even the heat and the centipedes that creep in or the scorpions that I’m always concerned with when I get up to use the bathroom in my barefeet at night, don’t deter me from loving New Mexico.

Every year when I come back, as soon as we cross that invisible line from Texas’ ‘still kinda like Olkahoma’ to the ‘real’ desert landscape, joy wells up inside me. This year we flew. And still when I was able to look down across the brown sandy land with the gray green sage brush. And like every year, I thanked the Lord for letting me come back once more.

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