You have to keep in mind this is a true story, and the events I’m about to describe took place before 2006 in a desert land which I’ve never been able to find again on any map. And years later, when I tried to retrace the route there was nothing familiar about any of it; all the markings I’d drawn in my notebook either never existed or had been covered by two decades worth of sand, and they’d disappeared like the dream this is going to sound like. But it did happen. It all happened exactly the way I’m going to tell you.
It starts in New Jersey. The owner of Drive Thru Records had cooked up an idea for an MTV reality show and sent me on a weekend tour with one of his bands to gather intel. I saw so much in three days I got 180 pages out of it. But they were rough pages, and when I sent them along the reply came back with: “I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at. Come to LA immediately. We’re going to polish these up and get this thing sold.”
Suddenly, it all seemed like destiny. But I wasn’t going to fly to California. I was eighteen and had never seen America. My best friend Ernest wanted to see America too. He was away at college getting a degree in philosophy, but after I explained our mission he convinced the school to give him credits for our road trip as a sort of outpatient field-study. He came home the next day and as we loaded up the car his father gave us $40 and a tattered copy of Carlos Castaneda’s book - The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. “I never got to go on the road,” he’d said. “I never even smoked a joint. I always thought there’d be more time.”
Weed was the furthest either of us had gone back then, but that Don Juan book was kind of a drug gospel, and before we'd even reached the midwest we’d stopped talking about Hollywood and whatever fantasies we’d created of a mythical California - it was all peyote from that point on. Finding it. Bowing down to it. Stepping through the portal to the other side.
We didn’t know anything about Native Americans. We didn’t know what the difference was between a Yaqui and a Navajo (the only tribe either of us had ever heard of). And without the internet, we were relying solely on a 1970’s road atlas we found in the “free box” at a gas station in south Jersey. I called my mother at some point and she said she’d gotten an Indian drum for Christmas as a kid and it came from a place called Taos, New Mexico. “We can’t lose with a tip like that,” Ernest said. “The Universe is pointing us to Taos.”
Three days later we we made a right off I-40 at Santa Rosa and drove north to Taos.
Now this was disappointing. The first thing that didn’t go our way. We parked on the main drag of a pretty deserted town and didn’t feel any of the momentum that had been driving us for days. Because it really did seem religious in way. Like how pilgrims describe a star hanging above a distant shore. Or the green grass of a valley that suddenly screams “HOME” after climbing rough miles through the glowering and ominous forest. We’d sold our souls to the road and some internal compass erased everything in the rearview and pushed us 2,000 miles in this direction. But we took one look at that town and knew it wasn’t the promised land.
Taos didn’t have any of the poverty we’d seen leading us in; it was polished as a movie set, like a European’s idea of what the old west probably looked like. One-story adobe clay stores lined the streets. With signs for “Navajo Silver” and “High-Frequency Yoga”, nothing but nicknacks. Souvenirs. Total bullshit.
“Is this a town or a resort for divorced moms?” I said.
“I can’t smell the peyote anymore,” Ernest said. “It’s not here.”
So far we hadn’t seen another person, so it was impossible to get a real feel for the place. We were right in front of a crystal store and after nervously smoking, like, five cigarettes we finally convinced ourselves to go in. A white-woman with short grey hair didn’t say “Hi” to us, but watched from behind the counter with those same clear eyes you see in born-again Christians right after they’ve been saved. The cult illusion of getting closer to paradise with each mile put between you and your past life, but the inner frenzy always one hiccup away from breaking back out.
We pretended to look at the rocks and then I finally said to her, “Hey, I’m Scott. This is Ernest. We’re from New Jersey.”
She was immediately turned off. “I moved here from Long Island and I don’t miss it at all.”
What’s your name?” Ernest asked.
“Kathy. Well, it was Kathy. I joined the Native American Church and now I have a new name.”
Kathy didn’t offer her new name but I felt like a general disdain for the tri-state might bond us so I took my shot. “We’re actually out here looking for peyote. Do you know where we can buy some?”
She had this crystal necklace wrapped around her throat with big pink rocks hooked on like a deep sea fishing lore. Her hands were caressing the rocks mindlessly, but when I asked about the peyote she put both of her thumbs behind the chain and almost ripped the necklace off in anger. “Peyote is a sacrament! Every weekend people like you show up looking to get high. Not on my watch!”
Ernest started apologizing. “We’re not here to just get high. We’ve been led out here. Some force is trying to make this happen.”
“You think you can just drive out here and get fucked up for the weekend? How dare you? This is my store!”
“Oh, please,” I said. “You’re from Long Island. We’re going to get judged by somebody from Long Island?”
She didn’t like that. She screamed at us to leave and then started swinging a phone around saying she was going to call the cops. Somewhere in her freakout she said that peyote was illegal and we’d just committed a federal crime.
We were out in the desert again, going as fast as my Camry would take us, worried some constable was going to be coming around the next bend with lights flashing. But no one came, and the landscape swallowed us immediately.
“I didn’t know peyote was illegal,” Ernest said.
“That idiot doesn’t know anything. She’s a tourist. And she was holding out on us.”
“No more white people. Just Indians from now on. They’ve gone far enough around the bend. They’ll meet meet us halfway.”
There was nothing out there. No barbed-wire. Almost no scrub. It was more desolate than the hollow moon. That’s why we were able to see the giant skeleton of a tee-pee rising out of the sand twenty minutes down the road, blue-ed by the distance, looking like it was dancing through the waves of heat emanating off the pavement.
“I’ve got a good feeling,” Ernest said. “Something will happen there.”
The closer we got, the less likely this seemed. What we’d originally envisioned as a sort of temple morphed into a mound of stucco with the wooden bones of a tee-pee surrounding it. The wrap that would’ve gone on the outside to tie it all together had either blown away or never been finished. The wooden sign out front for NAVAJO RUGS was in bad shape too.
“At least the patina of this place feels real,” I said.
Again we were the only car out front and the only shoppers in the store. An old Navajo man was folding rugs and gave us wink from a face as tired and scarred as the land itself. He had a cowboy hat on his head and a pearl-button tucked into denim jeans. “Long ways from California,” he said.
“I guess there’s no reason to waste time,” Ernest said to me. “He knows why we’re here.”
We gave him the same pitch we’d given Kathy, but this time I handed him a $20 bill.
“There’s no peyote here,” he said. “It doesn’t grow this far north. There’s a crossroad town called Gallup. That’s where the peyote is. Find a man named Pino. You can get it from him.”
He sounded sure so we got back on the road in a place we’d never been and hurried to the X on a treasure map we’d never heard of. We drove all night, seeing four-legged things cross our headlights they don’t put in textbooks. The dinosaur-mural interrupted every couple hours by a neon Denny’s sign, and then plummeted right back into a world you can still navigate by starlight. In the pink dawn I almost drove us into the side of cow standing in the middle of the road. It never looked at us. And when I honked it didn’t hurry out of our way.
It was already hot and loud when we got into Gallup. The way the third-world wakes up with the sun and begins working on ways to eek out a living before the heat melts the forsaken back indoors. Everything was alive and sinister. White methheads who hadn’t slept yet skulked back and forth arguing with invisible enemies. Indians sat on corners drinking or just staring into an existence they knew wasn’t final. Mexican women cooked all kinds of things on barrels and grills I didn’t know the names of. Rugs were for sale. Pottery. Stolen parts of cars and computers. It was an open air flea market of all vendors and no customers. And it had all just been there since the beginning, and I’ll bet the faces haven’t changed twenty years out.
The first person we talked to on the street had tattoos all over his face and a Korn t-shirt down to his knees. “Yeah I know Pino,” he said. “Do you know Pino?”
“No,” Ernest said. “We heard up by Taos that he’s the guy to see.”
“Oh yeah. He’s the guy to see. Buy me a beer?”
I bought each of us a .32 Steel Reserve for breakfast, which we crushed together behind a dumpster, then he walked us to a smoke shop and said, “Pino’s in there.”
Unlike everywhere else we’d been this smoke shop was packed. All the kids in Gallup had gauge earrings, and they were all in the store with green hair buying bongs and rolling papers. We went up to the counter and a Hasidic Jew stood on the other side. His yarmulka and hair curls were in complete contrast to everything we’d seen for at least 48-hours. He was the only person who looked more out of place than us.
“We’re trying to find a guy named Pino,” I said. And then for no reason I added, “We’re from New Jersey.”
“Jersey? You don’t like Brooklyn? I used to live in Brooklyn.”
“No, we like Brooklyn. Ernest, don’t we like Brooklyn?”
“Yeah,” Ernest said. “Love Brooklyn.”
“Do you know where Pino is?” I asked him.
“Don’t I look like a Pino?”
Was this a test? Was there a right answer? While I was trying to figure out the move Ernest just blurted out what we were after. Pino took a minute. Then he played dumb. “No. I don’t know what that is.”
“We’re not cops,” Ernest said. “A Navajo man sent us to you.”
“I’ve never heard of peyote. Sorry, I can’t help you.”
I said “Please” on the way out but it didn’t matter. We were back on the street, smoking against my car, silently checking our karma-cards, wondering why the dice refused to roll Cee-Lo.
“We should’ve asked that guy in the Korn shirt,” I said. “I’m sure he knows a kid who can steal it from their parents.”
Ernest bounced off the car and smacked my shoulder, “Of course! We need to find someone our age. We keep asking all these old people. Old people suck. We’re two dudes on our way to California. What kid wouldn’t want to help us out?”
Suddenly it seemed so obvious. “It’s almost lunchtime! Let’s go to the high school and see if anyone’s hanging out.”
We drove around Gallup for five minutes and found our mark. An Indian kid in a Metallica shirt was dumping coins into a payphone at the 7-11. He had a little dog with him lying on the hot pavement, tongue flopped out like it’d been cooking there for some time.
“I love Metallica,” Ernest said. “That’s the guy.”
I pulled the car right up and hung out my window. “What’s up, man? You need some money?”
“No, man. I need a ride. I just got out of jail. My family doesn’t even know where I am.”
“We’re looking for peyote. You know anyone who has some?”
“Yeah. Everyone. My grandfather’s a Roadman. We could go see him.”
He said his name was Britt and his grandfather lived by Window Rock, a thirty-minute drive. I cleared off the backseat and Britt and his dog got in. The poor thing had been pregnant at least once, it’s udder basically dragged on the floor. It was covered in bugs too, but I love all dogs, and as happy as I was to have Britt, I was even happier to have a little mutt panting along with us in the car.
After Gallup the map stopped functioning. We made rights and lefts at wooden posts; went down dirt roads that looked like animal trails. I never saw a street sign. We’d pass a trailer that looked abandoned, some dogs would be lying out front, sometimes an Indian would be lying in the dust with them. We stopped at a fork you could see the Window Rock from and took a piss. I tried to draw a map from memory in my notebook but even if my life depended on it I don’t think I could’ve gotten us back to a paved road. And then we went over a little ridge and saw our first tree. A trailer with sheet-paneled walls stood with it to form a kind of property line.
“You guys stay here,” Britt said. “My grandfather hates white people.” He got out and said, “I’m going to leave the dog here. He hates dogs, too.”
“Tell him we’re cool white people,” I said. “We’re punk rock. We hate the government.”
Britt was only a few steps out of the car when the trailer door swung open. A frail man came out, cowboy boots first, and started yelling at Britt in another language.
“Grandpa, chill out, man,” Britt said.
He kept yelling at Britt and Ernest whispered to me, “No one knows we’re here. Do you even know what state we’re in?”
“What are you saying?”
The Roadman stopped yelling. His face was clean shaven but his wrinkles were so deep his fingers almost disappeared in them. He was considering what was the most important decision of our entire lives, and we sat there with toes and fingers crossed, hoping the sins of our ancestors wouldn’t be held against us.
“They drove me all the way here,” Britt said. “You could at least talk to them.”
The Roadman responded in English, I guess so there was no confusion. “I know why they’re here. You think they’ve never been here before? Get rid of them!”
“He’s seen all this,” Ernest whispered again. “He knew this was going to happen.”
The Roadman looked away from Britt and directly at us as if he’d heard what Ernest said to me. “All right, Britt, my grandson, if you don’t get them out of here, I will.” He stepped back inside and Britt turned and ran to the car.
“GO! GO!” Britt said. “He’s getting a rifle.”
The k-turn I did kicked up so much dust that we couldn’t see anything behind us, so if he came back out with a rifle we’d never know. Britt felt bad about wasting our time so he took us to his aunt’s house on another part of the reservation to see if we could spend the night. We parked in front of a trailer that was holding up pretty well and Britt went inside. By this time the dog was sitting on Ernest’s lap and he was swatting at things crawling from its fur.
A light skinned woman with the blackest hair came out of the trailer first. She was obviously not happy with the surprise guests.
“Britt told me what happened,” she said to us. “I’m sorry about my father, but he was right, you shouldn’t be here. This isn’t your place.”
She told us her name was Tina and the house was full. I was honest with her. I explained I knew virtually nothing about Indian affairs and even less about the Navajo. But we were good people, and her nephew - Britt - was a good kid. About a dozen children started gathering on the porch and came down one by one to file in line behind Tina. The kids were much more interested in us than she was. They asked where we had come from, what our families were like, that they’d never met Italians before, and had we ever been to New York City?
Eventually we were invited in. One of the little girls gave us a tour of the house. There was a hole in the living room floor that we stepped around. She said Tina slept on the couch. Two bedrooms had two sets of bunk beds. She showed us her bed. Crayon drawings of the desert were taped to the wall next to her pillow. And there was one with the Eiffel Tower and a little brown girl standing under it. A woman who looked like Tina walked in cradling a baby with a deformity on it’s skull. “Her mother touched silver while she was pregnant,” she said to us. Another kid took me outside to get water. Behind the trailer were several barrels filled with rain they’d captured during the last storm. There was no running water. No plumbing of any kind.
We had a dinner of macaroni and cheese and told them about everything we had seen so far. I asked if all the kids were siblings. Tina said, “We all share everything. Some are mine. Some are my sisters. Some are from down the road.” I asked about the water. Britt said, “We signed a treaty years ago. We don’t have to pay taxes but we don’t get any services.”
After dinner we smoked on the porch and I taught one of the kids how to play a Green Day song on a three-string acoustic that was dug out from under a bed. Then Ernest and I had a deep and restful sleep on the kitchen floor, and had no complaints about anything, for the first time in a long time happy to be there instead of anywhere else.
The next morning Britt promised he’d get us peyote so stay close to the reservation. We left for town early so we didn’t overstay our welcome and never heard from him. I got a call a month later from a jail in New Mexico. It was Britt. He apologized for letting us down but he was hitchhiking that morning and got picked up on another warrant. I said it was okay and that he’d given us something better.
While Britt was getting arrested Ernest and I were in a Walmart bathroom on the reservation taking a bath in the sink. I finished first and went out to the parking lot to dry off in the sun. I watched the families of Navajos and other Indians pile out of minivans. I watched a bored cart-boy corral drifting carts. Dogs gathered at the edge of the parking lot and eyed up suckers to beg from. But then I saw something that I still can’t explain. A big fat old Navajo, different in size and shape then any I’d seen before, sat on a pile of newspapers with a pipe in his mouth and his hands folded on his lap. No smoke came from the pipe and his body suggested he was in the final seconds before a long nap. But his eyes were so white and they darted around with the hyper-vigilance of an animal guarding his pack. He saw everything.The families. The cart-boy. The dogs. And he saw me. And he saw me mesmerized by him. And I knew that he was the guy, but I felt an overwhelming calmness right then, and no urge to approach him.
One year later I was back living in New Jersey, the script hadn’t sold, and I’d married a girl I would’ve traded my next several lives for. Almost on the anniversary of that morning at Window Rock I was sitting in the passenger seat of a white van, just getting done with a 12-hour shift of hanging window draperies in Manhattan skyscrapers, when we rolled through Times Square and I saw that same fat old Indian sitting on a milk crate.
“Oh my God,” I said to my boss. “That’s him. Thats the guy. I know him!”
I jumped out of the van, no second-guessing that maybe I was seeing things. It was him and he was in bad shape. His leg had an open wound, wrapped by a bandage of rags that was coming undone. He sat there on that crate, just watching New York roll by like he had all the time in the world, holding a sign that said: “Old Navajo Needs Money to Get Home.”
“I know you!” I said to him.
“I know you,” he said back. He pointed right at my chest and said, “I saw you at the Walmart. About this time last year.” Then he reached out his hand said, “I’m Old Indian Joe.”
“What happened to you?”
“I’d never been to New York, and since I’m getting ready to die soon, I wanted to see it. The minute I stepped off the bus I got hit by a taxi. They took all my money and left me like this.”
My boss, a three year sober Christian, didn’t put up a fight and let me load this bleeding stranger into his van. I brought him home and my wife didn’t have any problem with it either. Old Indian Joe stayed in our apartment for two days and we fed him and got him a new bandage. He told me he was 300 years old and as soon as he could make it down to Las Cruces he’d mail me a box of peyote. He gave me his reservation number and we hugged and said goodbye. But almost from the minute he left my wife and I had a deep and merciless evil move in. Every demon from a bad childhood came back and when I left for good I couldn’t bare to drive past our old apartment. I never went back for the mail. I was so afraid of that cursed address I never even went back to feed the fish.
In 2020 I drove to the desert again and tried to find things. Window Rock is a park with gates and fees, so we’d either taken some hidden route with Britt to avoid all that, or another dimension had opened up which I could no longer access. I couldn’t find the fork we’d pissed at. I couldn’t even find any place to see the arch that wasn’t within the park’s boundaries. Old Indian Joe’s reservation number didn’t make sense to anyone either: Navajo Reservation 207. At some official building that was on both a Zuni and Navajo Reservation, I was told, “Well, there’s lots of Old Indian Joes.” The Walmart looked completely different too, and I couldn’t tell if it was actually the same one. But I think deep down I knew I wouldn’t find it, and I was pretty sure why. You see, like my youth, and my unstained soul, it’s just somewhere else now. A place maybe I can get to again, but the compromises keep mounting, and they all leave me with less of the thing I’m trying to get back to. I think Old Indian Joe represented the pure me, taking it all in, mesmerized by the whole beautiful world that wasn’t too big yet. And had I stayed out in the wild, slithering down a road, knowing the tabernacle would eventually appear before me, life might’ve rolled a little more in my favor. But I sold out, went home out of fear, and that version of myself was bruised and bleeding when I confronted it again. And when I patched him up and sent him off I had a crossroad laid before me. I could’ve followed the trails in the sand. I could’ve jumped through the Window Rock. And who knows, maybe I would’ve looked like a comet coming out the other side.