“Sanctuary,” Contest Winning Essay by Nancy Lamb

Our guest judge Holly Hughes, wrote this about Nancy Lamb’s essay:

In this essay, the narrator recalls her first visit to Martin’s Ranch in the red rock canyons high above Santa Fe and her first experience with the landscape as sanctuary that’s still part of her today. In fresh descriptive language, the writer brings us along on the harrowing ride up the narrow trail to the ranch, then out on horseback with hawks and eagles soaring above. She finds a fossil that provides a window into how this landscape was formed—the fossil was once part of the ocean—and gains a deeper understanding of her place in the world.

 

SANCTUARY

By Nancy Lamb

When I was five years old, my parents took me and my older sister to Martin’s Ranch, a paradise tucked into the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico. Until that time, I had never traveled beyond the flat plains of Oklahoma where I was born.

The moment I stepped into the airplane, I was enchanted. The noise of the two propellers thrummed high above the earth as I peered out the window, awed by the tiny world unfolding below me. I was dressed for the occasion, wearing my white organza pinafore with strawberries embroidered on it—the unfortunate target of my vomit when I became airsick during the bumpy flight.

After landing at the Albuquerque airport, Tootie Martin—the daughter of the ranch owner—met us at the plane and drove us to the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe for lunch. The columned adobe building overlooked one end of a town square outlined with unpaved streets and small shops. As we ate, cowboys strutted in and out of the dining room sporting showy belt buckles, hand-crafted of silver and turquoise—silent statements of power and prestige.

As we drove from Santa Fe to Pecos, up Cow Creek Canyon, a new world unfolded before me. The landscape changed from russet to green, from flat to steep to harrowing, as the road changed from passable to impossible. The sixteen-mile journey to Martin’s Ranch took two hair-raising hours of driving on a rutted road that was little more than a vague suggestion of a dirt trail carved into the sides of five hundred foot cliffs.

Dusty and exhausted, we finally arrived at the gate of Martin’s Ranch—our entrance to paradise. On this sun-soaked afternoon, we drove through a lush valley bisected by a meandering silver stream. Pine-covered mountains rose to snow-capped splendor in the distance, the perfect backdrop for the stone ranch house and corral nestled near a spring-fed pond.

Everywhere I looked, everything I touched, made my senses sing. Ruby-throated hummingbirds danced in flashes of garnet and green at the feeders. Mica glittered on the ground, stars crowned the nighttime sky. And campfires seduced both singers and seekers.

Every morning we climbed on our horses for a trail ride. As we trekked through forest and meadows painted with wildflowers, the sound of our voices and horses’ hooves sent deer, elk and wild turkey scurrying into the protective shelter of aspen stands. Brook trout lurked beneath the silver surface of the stream. Red-tailed hawks and American bald eagles sailed overhead, skimming the thermals formed by treacherous passes.

At the mountain’s summit nine thousand feet above sea level, the world spread before me like creation’s quilt. Across the desert, snow-capped mountains graced the horizon with icy splendor.

As we came to rest at the top of the world, I hoisted my leg over the back of my chestnut roan—named Tuffy—and slid to the ground. There, on the glacier-littered earth, I found a rock that looked like a seashell.

Puzzled, I showed the “shell” to my mother. She explained that this was a fossil, that the top of this mountain once rested at the bottom of the sea.

Even then, I knew I’d come home.

And from that moment to this, I have been enchanted by a discovery that created a lifelong sense of awe at the drama of the earth’s crust, played out so mysteriously over millennia of volcanic violence.

Not far below the rocky peak, a soft, green meadow scattered with penstemon and Indian paint, columbine and black-eyed Susan, unfolded before us with casual elegance. Nearby, Soldier Creek tumbled down the mountainside. I can still feel the coolness of the air against my skin as I led my thirsty horse for a drink through the shade of aspen and pine. And I can taste the icy tingle of pure snow-fed water rolling over my tongue as I lay on my belly at the edge of the stream and scooped water into my mouth.

Then, as happens in both life and in dreams, my sanctuary slowly vanished. One by one the owners of the ranch died. The rutted road up Cow Creek Canyon was “improved” by loggers at the price of leveled virgin forest. Civilization crept deep into the wilderness where most of the wildlife has been hunted into extinction.

But in my reverie, in my dreams, that paradise still exists. Filled with elk and bear and bald eagles, with Indian paint and iris, it’s tucked into my private wilderness and etched permanently into my heart. Sometimes I forget to visit this paradise when I need it most. But when I finally remember to come home again, hawk and trout, bobcat and deer, canyons and creeks and meadows wait for me. They give me sanctuary when the world rumbles dangerously around me and hope when life spins out of control.

Everyone needs an Eden. Everyone needs a dream. A place to retreat to when desires turn to dust . . . a home to return to when we’ve wandered too long in the wilderness.

And if we’re lucky, our Eden becomes a reminder to look for comfort in the heavens, but to search for miracles at our feet.

 

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