Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Finding the Southwest's secret

Our two-week journey is ending. Our van is pointed west as we chase the setting sun. Our New Mexico trek is over. We’re heading back to California, but there’s more to the story.

After we mended our aches and pains from the ordeals of the wild, we headed to my buddy Jeff Hengesbaugh’s ranch in Glorieta, New Mexico. In my wilder days, Jeff and I rode together.

Glorieta, on the Santa Fe Trail, is steeped in history. Throughout centuries of exploration and migration, everyone passed through here. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led his legions through this pass in 1540 searching for the gold of the Seven Cities of Cibola.

Jeff is a writer, historian, storyteller, trader of antiquity, philosopher and historic reenactor. Many of the museums in New Mexico display the treasures he’s found. He can ride like the wind, put a 50-caliber musket ball on a quarter at 50 yards, and keep you mesmerized with stories of the Alamo, Billy the Kid, and ancient battles between the Spanish Conquistadors and the Chichimeca Indians.

Jeff held my students spellbound, but it was time to leave; so we headed down the trail, seeking new adventures.

We began these travels with little purpose, other than a sense of adventure, as we sought the spirit of the new. The method of my madness was for my students to understand the significance of place, and to conceptualize human history upon a place. They were not quite there yet. I told them that understanding does not come only from knowledge. Sometimes one is guided by intuition. We learn by something felt in the wind, something seen in the stars, and something that calls to the spirit from the wastelands. This would be our journey’s greatest lesson.

It’s the land that is compelling on any journey. Leave the gift shops behind. Go beyond the pavement. To understand place, you’ve got to get a little mud on the tires.

We spent our last days drifting within the enchantment of the Southwest. It’s raw, broken country, frightfully true and elegant in its searing simplicity of form. Each canyon and mesa has a distinct mythology.

Hiking into the past, we found pictographs, dwellings and a kiva, an ancient place of worship. The Ancient Ones had left their sign upon the earth at Heshoda Matdo’a Pueblo, a Zuni word meaning ancient gathering. The air was hot and still. A raven warned of our presence. Spirits were present.

“Listen,” I told my students. “You can hear them. What did they want to tell us with their carvings upon the rock?”

It’s the same message that we want to leave behind. That we were here. That we once laughed, danced and loved. Their ancient sounds of life, cooking, and of making clay pottery are gone. Only the pictographs remain.

We spent our last nights camping at Rancho Pinon, my buddy Al Stoa’s ranch. Al and I served together in Vietnam. Rancho Pinon is nestled in the Zuni Mountains, which hold the secret to the Southwest. Come morning, we’d learn that secret. The night was unsettling. We were bombarded by a meteor shower. Dawn came like a mystery. We held our breath and watched the sunrise. In the solitude of early morning, I told my students that we are obligated to the dictates of a primordial past that connects us to the one great origin of life and keeps us whole. “Here’s the secret,” I said. ”Below us, above us, inside us — this is all there is.”

As silently as we came, we left. And so ended our New Mexico Adventure.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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