Last winter I received a letter from an American friend living in Saudi Arabia, who spoke about the monotony of the colors in the desert landscape. I had complained to her about the lack of color in a New York State winter: browns, grays, little green, dull light, and cold. I started thinking about a trip I’d taken years ago across the country in a brand-new BMW. (This was well before they were called “Beamers” and driven by upwardly mobile hotshots and their pampered wives.) The car belonged to Michael, an anthropologist friend, and we were headed to an Indian reservation in Nevada—Michael for some fieldwork, and my boyfriend, Fred, and I literally along for the ride.
Some states had no speed limits, incredibly straight, flat roads, and (especially in Utah and Nevada) a landscape that did not change much for miles and miles. You learned that 95 or 100 felt a lot like 60 until you got to an exit and realized, with a small stab of panic, that slowing down and actually stopping are very different at 100 miles per hour than at 60. The BMW thought it was on the Autobahn. Born to run, so to speak.
Even the shrubbery was brown or tan or muted green and dusty-looking. It was July, and the car didn’t have air-conditioning.
We got to the reservation late one afternoon. We were staying in the modest home of a friend who was helping Michael find elderly sources to interview about reservation life in the early part of the century. Our hostess, Dee, was Paiute Indian, married to a Mexican-American, Rafael, who was typical of many men we met out there: spare, weatherbeaten, sun-darkened skin, boots, jeans, taciturn, sinewy, and almost solemn. I was exceedingly young. I remember thinking there was something “real” about the men out here that wasn’t present in men from the East Coast.
The first morning, at an exotic breakfast of chorizo and eggs, Rafael introduced us to what was apparently a time-honored test of manhood: pale green chile peppers. He placed one of the largest on the rim of his plate. He ate almost meditatively, carefully cutting a piece of chile and placing it atop a bit of egg, scooping it up, and chewing slowly. Michael smiled; he had observed this ritual many times. Then Rafael challenged each of the men to try eating a whole one. Although we loved Szechuan food, the idea of eating an entire very hot pepper seemed a little over the top. Rafael’s heavily lined face crinkled up even more as he watched them struggle with it, skinny body shaking with silent laughter. I was not expected to take part in the ritual. The guys were good sports about it; nothing bad happened to them, and obviously they passed his test.
Later that day we visited a colleague of Michael’s who had a graduate degree from the University of Chicago. She was making a quilt. Her leather-skinned, rancher husband was another of those “Marlboro” men: tall with ropy arms, serious, quiet. A Western guy; a real man. She had given up a career in academia to be a rancher’s wife. The anthropologist couldn’t understand it. Neither could my boyfriend. I got it: She wanted a certain kind of guy. He made her feel like a woman.
It was pretty obvious he didn’t like us. A disparaging comment was made about Indians. He was threatened by our presence: We represented what his wife had left behind, and he didn’t want us reminding her of it. And he simply did not consider the two guys to be “men” on the same scale as those he was comfortable with.
For the rest of the trip, I thought about those two, and Rafael, and other people we met. It was my first exposure to both the desert terrain and a certain type of male. My own father reminded me of Errol Flynn and was a very tough, hard guy who adored Hank Williams and Enrico Caruso equally, but he was different from these men.
While Michael stayed on to finish his interviews, Fred and I flew home. I had seen some incredible desert sunsets, walked through a mountainous petrified forest of ocher and brown one hot, July morning to the great amusement of Dee and Rafael, and spent an entire day at an Indian rodeo. I had spent hours driving on hot, dry roads in a car with no air-conditioning. I had walked a long, dusty driveway to the tiny cinderblock house of an Indian man who personified the word “broken,” yet quietly and proudly showed us his treasures: a cardboard box of arrowheads and other relics he had found in the dried streambed near his home. His young son hovered nearby, watching us to see if we would judge his father. To this day I remember his face and what I saw in it that made me want to cry.
But I didn’t know what I had missed so much until, like a dried sponge, I returned to the Northeast and was reconstituted by the lushness of the summer green and the cool, dewy nights.
And by the men who were sweetly slick and talked a good line and sometimes were even emotional, and who wore shoes of all kinds and tailored pants with cuffs and pleats and had smooth skin and knowing looks and curly hair.
Country girl that I was, and am—I missed the boys of New York City as much as I missed the colors of a New York summer. They didn’t drive pickups, didn’t have sun-creased squints, weren’t so silent or solemn or chiseled. But they were men as much as any cowboy or rancher. New York was their world, and they moved with its energy and its women in the rhythm of the place where they belonged.
Years later, and after writing nearly an entire book about male and female energy, I understand that the dance of men and women is timeless and enduring no matter what cultural setting it occurs in. It goes beyond the difference between bolos and silk ties. I had to go almost three thousand miles to learn that what I was looking for was waiting for me at home.