The Welcome Fire

“Once you’ve walked and left footprints in the canyon a part of you will always be here,” Daniel said.  What he didn’t say was that Canyon de Chelly, Arizona will call you back. And so, it has for over 30 years.Every return has been different yet somehow always the same.  On one occasion I was joined by 13 others. Some had been to the Canyon before, some never.  But all had heard the call.  It was October, 6 a.m. and dark in Santa Fe when we started the journey, none of us including me sure of what lay ahead but truly ready to go on the adventure.

First, we offered cornmeal to feed the directions, the morning, our journey, the vehicles and each other and all others.  It was an Indigenous tradition from the Southwest I had been shown to do, and almost every early dawn whether it was downtown Washington, D.C., Kolkata, India or my own backyard in Santa Fe, I had done so. Dinè (Navajo) elder Annie Kahn, in the spirit world as of this writing, once led me in dawn prayer, when the stars were shining and a thin line of light threaded its way across the eastern horizon.  She said it was a special time of “Hòzòn”  (beauty in the Dinè language) when prayers could be sent and heard most clearly. Annie was and is still a light in the dark for me and many others.

Offerings made, we traveled on past pine clad mountains, the looming flat-topped volcanic Tsi Ping (Pedernal) peak made famous by artist Georgia O’Keeffe, through red sandstone cliffs of Gallina, the rolling plains near Regina, past billboards, gas stations and fast food eateries of Bloomfield and Farmington.

We stopped as if compelled by some invisible force near the visually stunning and dramatic immensity of a sharply jagged dark peak commonly known as Shiprock.  No ships around here, though.  It was a misnomer.  The Dinè named the peak Tse Bit’a’i, “rock with wings” which refers to the legend of a great bird that brought the Dinè from the north to their present lands.  Other traditional stories surround this mountain which thrusts starkly upwards into the cobalt blue sky with its “wings” of volcanic rock radiating north and south from the central formation.

Traveling westward we snaked our way over the Lukachukai Mountains, with stunning views towards Tse Bit’ a’ i’ in the east, then dropped down through massive red sandstone cliffs to the west, eventually reaching the mouth of Canyon de Chelly and the Dinè family who would be our guides for four days.

From the Earth Walks I remember:

  • At the beginning of our descent down the long and winding trail from the canyon rim, Roshi Richard Baker’s answer to Joan Halifax in her Zen training: She asked, “Roshi, there is the path and there is the temple at the end of the path. What is the meaning of the path?”  His response: “Joan, the path IS the temple.” Step by step, some labored, we threaded our way down, then reached our new home for three days in the canyon.  We left our footprints in the sand, soul signatures that would call some of us back here again.Guide Daniel Staley’s cousin Esther Bia who accompanied us shared, “My mother said to always leave a little food on your plate for the ‘hungry spirit.’ In times of need you will be helped.”
  • At dawn, Daniel’s flute and prayer chants echoed against the dark cliffs against a sea of infinite stars, meteors streaking across the horizon. Daniel told us on the trail down: “Whenever you need, face the canyon wall and let everything go that needs to go.  It will help change you.”
  • I woke up in the tent the first morning with persistent joint pains gone! Where did they go? Someone said, “To Mother Earth!”  I felt joy and energy enough to run the canyon.
  • We did service work at a canyon resident’s land, digging the fence line free of sand blown over by fierce winds; clearing the fields of dead and down wood and hauling heavy sheet rock from a truck to the house.
  • Then we visited the home of another resident in the canyon.  It was an amazing contrast of nearby ancient cliff dwellings in the canyon wall and a set of active solar panels generating electricity for the house. Even though it was a bright sunny afternoon, she and her grandson lit a fire outdoors, a traditional welcome to visitors. We shared lunch and her family stories.
  • During 35 mile and hour swirling gusts of wind we shook ourselves out of old habits and thoughts through a sweat lodge. It is as if the winds carried away our prayers to where they needed to go. When we were out of the lodge the winds calmed.  As we began the ceremony, a hawk flew to a perch atop the canyon wall, overlooking our doings.  I thought: this is the spirit of Daniel’s grandparents, on whose land sat. His family was here and we had become part of the family as well.
  • When we first arrived at the campsite, Esther urged us to build a fire as soon as possible, to let everyone—seen and unseen—know we were there. I took it to be a kind of welcoming as well as a friendly protection.  As a member of the Scottish McKenzie Fire Klan on my mother’s side of the family, I liked that idea.  After all, I lit candles in my parents’ basement when I was six years old and stared into the flame, fascinated with the small fire but I think truly I was seeking the fire of spirit. Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”  Perhaps on that Earth Walks we rediscovered those energies as well.

The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing.  One cannot help but be in awe when on contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.  It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.

 —Albert Einstein

Gentle Footsteps in Canyon de Chelly


In 2016, I led an EarthWalks group to Canyon de Chelly, Arizona.  We were guided by a wonderful group of people from the area who had called this amazing place home for generations.  One of our participants, Sallie Bingham, wrote an account of the experience for a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) show “To the Contrary” with host Bonnie Eribe.  Bonnie Erbé was a nonpartisan, award-winning American journalist and television host based in the Washington, D.C. area who covered national politics for decades. She was a columnist for 25 years with Scripps Howard Newspapers wrote columns for and

You can find Ms. Bingham’s wonderful full account of our experience in the canyon at:

Ms Bingham is an accomplished writer and her work can be found at: 

By Sallie Bingham

The Navajo/Diné traditional prayer is called “The Beauty Way.” Here it is in Diné—the Navajo name for their nation—and translated into English.

In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again

Hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shitsijí’ hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shikéédéé hózhóogo naasháa doo
Shideigi hózhóogo naasháa doo
T’áá altso shinaagóó hózhóogo naasháa doo
Hózhó náhásdlíí’
Hózhó náhásdlíí’
Hózhó náhásdlíí’
Hózhó náhásdlíí’

This past weekend, I was blessed to join eleven comrades on an expedition to Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, sponsored by the amazing Earthwalks, dedicated to a growing understanding, for us, of Native American ways, especially their spiritual traditions (the ones that can be shared), and to service—and to laughter and good food and cooperation and camping out under the stars.

(Read more by clicking on the link above)

Eat Dirt and Thrive!

After years of living in New Mexico, Chaco Canyon kept drawing me like a magnet. I felt a sense of mystery, wonder and timelessness just in hearing its name. But darn it!  This particular trip I had a persistent pain in my stomach that began even before I arrived at Chaco. Was the pain physical, emotional or both?  2003 had been a difficult year on many levels. President George Bush declared war on Iraq. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein deliberately set oil wells on fire in the Persian Gulf creating a huge environmental disaster.  In the Soviet Union, repression rose after a hopeful year of incipient democracy.  The U.S. economy was in serious trouble.  On the personal side, a close relative entered a hospital psychiatric ward, plagued with inner demons of doubt, paranoia and depression. A romantic relationship I was in for several years ended.  The biggest blow was the death of my mother. Maybe coming to the canyon that day was not only to attend a fall equinox ceremony with others but to find solace and some relief from the stomach pain as well as the pains of this world.

I drove alone, something that always helped me unwind from daily routines, responsibilities and anxieties at home.  The windswept landscape was bone dry, with only a sparse sagebrush, cactus and occasional juniper tree dotting the horizon.  Yet this was the desert environment I’d lived in most of my life that made me conscious in a way that a more lush, wet world did not.  The sound of a single bird singing, a drop of rain or trickle of water, the flash and wiggle of a lizard tail–here in the desert they reminded me not to take life for granted and that all my thoughts and actions were consequential.

After setting up camp, I hiked to the ledge overlooking the Pueblo Bonito site.  The mesa ravines supported wiry bunch grass, cliff roses wafting an occasional sweet fragrance, an array of desert wild flowers and Apache plumes fluffy with seed pods illuminated like bright lights in the late afternoon light. Rocky erosional pathways were exposed like large veins in a human hand.  Mysterious circular holes in the sandstone ledge looked human made and left me wondering about who, what and when. All the while, this persistent jabbing in my stomach was painfully present.

This was the path of the ancients I was treading, the route so many walked by foot for hundreds of miles to the Center Place, this canyon where thousands of rooms in ancient pueblo buildings had been carefully constructed in alignment with heavenly cycles of sun, moon and stars. I wondered if I was part of an ongoing drama, coming here to help find my own center place to ground myself in my daily life.  Back home there was the digital world wide web where I spent so many waking hours connecting to others electronically, but where was that center place in which I could rest and find the sacredness of the everyday?

As I walked along in the morning silence, I noticed a bit of crumbling red sandstone on the trail, and wondered if it might have served as paint for the exquisite Chaco pottery made hundreds of years ago.  Kneeling down, I wet a piece with saliva on my index finger to determine the color and texture; then without thinking, licked the red earth again, like licking the sweet batter on my mother’s spatula at home when she was baking a cake. It was rough, sandy and not at all like cake batter.  But for some inexplicable reason I repeated the procedure.  More licks of the earth batter.  Within minutes, my stomach pain vanished. I had no explanation, but Native American Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz expressed it this way in his poem  “Canyon de Chelly”:

Lie on your back on stone
the stone carved to fit
the shape of yourself.
Who made it like this,
knowing that I would be along
in a million years and look
at the sky being blue forever?

My son is near me. He sits
and turns on his butt
and crawls over to stones,
picks one up and holds it,
and then puts it in his mouth.
The taste of stone.
What is it but stone,
the earth in your mouth
You, son, are tasting forever.

I knew at that moment I’d become part of the place, was being given a gift from the canyon that day, no matter how or why.  Then that night, another gift:   I awoke just as a waning moon rose above canyon walls–orange-gold, beautiful, complete silence in the campground.  There was a blanket of infinite stars. I watched a meteor trail across the vast canopy and thought:  “This is why I come to Chaco.  To reconnect with my home in the stars.”  Then, an even larger meteor blazed across the darkness, as if to answer, “yes.”


“There’s More to Life Than Just Us”

Our Earth Walks group was at the farm of Don Bustos on July 20, 2002.  Don’s family had roots here in Santa Cruz that went back almost. 300 years. Don Bustos Bio   Both he and his farm was smiling with organic strawberries, melons, lemon cucumbers, corn and much more. We watched with fascination as a flesh colored bulbous headed “child of the earth” insect re-buried itself into the wet folds of mother earth.  These harmless and unusual looking critters are relatives of the cricket. Child of the Earth

Don shared his gentle passion for the earth, his gratitude for God’s gifts.  We all shared smiles, muddy footsteps, and common concerns about the environment. “It’s hard to explain why I chose this life style,” Don said.  “I get a certain pleasure out of doing something that others appreciate and making money at it..  It’s important to acknowledge that there’s more to life than just us.”

To honor the rest of life, Don knew that some of his growing field was for birds, animals and others.  “The life cycle is part of a Higher Power that is always there,” Don said.  Undoubtedly Don sensed this when he experienced the moon, rain and sun and other elements.  Cradling melons in our arms, we walked past an acequia, the life-giving ditch that channeled water from the high mountains above Santa Cruz to the fields below.

Giving thanks to Don and his hospitality the group traveled on to the beautiful farm and teaching gardens of Eremita and Margaret Campos who lived north of Espanola along the Rio Grande in Embudo.   The Campos Farm It was open house on the farm, and we tasted delicious, mouthwatering delights prepared in the open air under a ramada lovingly and artistically crafted by the Campos family.  Gentle rain fell, a welcome blessing on the fields.

Nearby on the desert mesa above the valley, stone mason and artist Ra Paulette showed us his incredibly beautiful sandstone home, carefully and painstakingly carved from the cliffs.  His work has gained international recognition.

We headed home to Santa Fe, tired and grateful, filled with the good food from the land, generous hearts and hard-working hands that love the earth and all of life.


Photo by Getty Images

For a number of years, I led a Ghost Ranch Conference Center’s winter college level “Jan Term” class I called “The Spirit of Place.”  In 2003, our class traveled to San Ildefonso Pueblo for their annual Deer Dance ceremony.  We left later than planned but my irritation and concern about missing the dances dissolved into the blood red sunrise over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and was replaced with acceptance, prayer and trust.  In fact, we did miss the dancers coming over the hills, but just as we entered the Bupingeh (see video at Respected center of the Pueblo) the dancers and crowd entered from the opposite side. The sacred ceremony began just as the sun rose over the eastern mountain ridge, its rays illuminating the shrine of feathers, corn meal and specially selected pine tree.


Photo by Dreamtime

After breakfast at Dollie’s restaurant in Espanola, we proceeded to the Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic pilgrimage place since 1816.  Native people were reported to have found the earth around this site endowed with healing properties. Indeed, there was a small side chapel at the church where visitors could gather some of the earth which no doubt was imbued with the power of fervent prayer as well.  As we parked the van at the Santuario, I noticed a man selling arts and crafts at the acequia (small water canal for irrigating farm fields). In my perspective, this seemed a violation of the sacredness of the place and reported him to the priest who good naturedly walked out to meet and greet this alleged criminal. I later saw the nuns giving him food, which he first offered to his dog.  As people passed by, he gifted them with stones he had gathered somewhere along the way.  One stone was given to a student in our group, who expressed appreciation.

Perhaps I was at the Santuario for my own healing from this rush to judgment about this stranger. I shared with our class a Navajo (Dine) lesson I had heard once:  never point your finger at someone, because you will find three fingers pointing back at yourself. That’s just what  happened symbolically that day.  I pointed out what I thought was wrong doing by someone, when it was really me who was in error.  Perhaps it was “Christ in drag” (Ram Das’ delightful phrase or “Christ in all His distressing disguises,” Mother Theresa’s words) at the steps of the church who had come to teach me a lesson in humility!

Just a Few Spaces Left for Chaco Canyon!

The Flute at Sunrise–Chaco Canyon

JUNE 16-18, 2023
(Just a few spaces left–register soon!)
On the mesa at Chaco. You. Native American flute plays as birds sing the day awake. First rays of sunrise warmly greet you.
If you’ve been to Chaco Canyon New Mexico before, you most likely want to return.  If you’ve never been to this profound World Heritage site, this is your opportunity for a wonderful immersive experience.  Chaco is vast, silent and filled with the voices of the Ancestors in ancient Pueblo sites, rock art known as petroglyphs and phenomenal archeoastronomy reflected in its buildings.  Then there are the stars at night! 
In fact, this will be New Moon when the night sky will especially display her sparkling glory.  We will be in the Canyon close to Summer Solstice, when special features of the ancient buildings receive the first rays of light in a remarkable display of architecture and the natural world.
Cultural resource guide for  the group will be respected elder and artist Bea Duran of Tesuque Pueblo.  Bea considers Chaco to be ancestral heartland and homeland and her humor and goodwill radiates a warm welcome to all.

Bea Duran of Tesuque Pueblo

Prior to the two night camping trip, the group will meet  with Ehren Kee Natay, a local Indigenous multi-media artist and recognized member of the Dine Nation with Kewa Pueblo, Irish and German ancestry. Deeply connected to his ancestral traditions, Ehren will share his understanding of historical and contemporary Indigenous culture, dispelling myths along the way.
His creative work has shown internationally and can be found at two New Mexico Heritage Museums. His current work further infuses his musical craft in Native American flute and drumming with visual aesthetics via live-performance. In his words, “I have a prayer, a spirit, a breath that is inside me.  It tells me to create. It cannot be silenced.  It can only be quiet by creating.”  

It is this spirit and breath that can be found in Chaco Canyon. I hope you will join us in this journey of discovery.

Doug Conwell, Earth Walks

For more details, cost and registration information contact    There is limited space available so be in touch as soon as you can!

“Honest to Goodness”–Tio’s Story


I got to know Tio Manzanares Tio’s Biography  of the Abiquiu area one winter when I was instructor at Ghost Ranch Conference Center for the “Earth Walks” the Spirit of Place” college Jan Term course in 2002.  He impressed me as a sincere, humble and jolly person with many magical stories to tell.  To this day I don’t know which story was “true” or not, but what story that anyone tells is actually “true,” including mine? For me, what was true were the genuine smiles he engendered, the noble yet powerfully simple wisdom he imparted  and the history of this part of northern New Mexico that he experienced and shared. As a younger man, Tio had worked for artist Georgia O’Keeffe, so he had many recollections of this somewhat enigmatic icon to share.  “True” or not, they were fascinating, amusing and one person’s insight into O’Keefe’s world.

Tio accompanied a number of our Earth Walks and on one he shared that during his days as a stone mason, he would watch and listen carefully and select only those rocks and stones “that wanted to go with me.”  That seemed like such good advice for us all, not in just selecting stones for a garden wall but in making daily decisions in our lives.I wrote the following for an edition of the Northern New Mexico Community College literary magazine “Trickster,” before Tio’s passing in 2018:

Honest to Goodness or “With Good Attitude Comes Good Weather”Tio Manzanares

I would have never thought ghosts, spaceships and Georgia O’Keefe had anything in common until I met Tio Manzanares, stone mason, musician songwriter and story teller from Abiquiu, New Mexico. Are the stories Tio tells true? That’s for you to decide.  Reality is completely overrated, honest to goodness.

I was teaching at Ghost Ranch conference center near Abiquiu when someone said, “There’s a local storyteller today and everyone’s invited.”  My course was on the cultural and spiritual traditions of northern New Mexico so you can bet I went to hear him at his Elder Hostel presentation. But turns out it wasn’t just hearing him—it was seeing him. Something about his eyes.  A twinkle, yes, but more like a silent chuckle just before his whole face ignited into laughter and a smile, his eyes disappearing into tiny slits.  My curiosity was ignited as well.  Anyone who’s got a smile that big has something they’re not telling—or something they should be telling. In Tio’s case it was the latter, and I had to meet him.

Former home of artist Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch

At dinner time I headed for the dining hall to find Tio.  Just outside the hall are huge elm trees where years later I would find myself on a late summer afternoon playing my Native American flute and standing with Santa Clara Pueblo elder Rina Swentzell, a respected scholar, architect, author and friend.  As I was playing, the twittering of a little bird hopping from branch to branch caught my attention. I finished playing and without thinking about it, turned to Rina and said, “Happy birthday!”  She looked astonished and asked how I knew that this day was indeed her birthday.  My answer?  “Honestly, I didn’t know.  But a little bird told me.”

As I entered the dining hall, there was a loud cacophony of noise from people busily engaged in conversations from their classes, speculations on the weather and a thousand other things. The hall was a large open space with a somewhat aging collection of tables, chairs and food serving stations all looking out through framed picture windows across open fields to the southern expanse of the Chama River Valley.  Ranch hands with dusty jeans and weathered boots munched hamburgers next to carefully coiffed Texas gals adorned with the appropriate amount of turquoise jewelry who sat next to college kids with tattoos and swatches of rainbow streaked hair.  Some people sat silently by themselves. All were welcome at the table.

I had two things in mind: supper and Tio. I found both, one that satisfied the body and the other that left my curiosity happily hungry for more. I spotted Tio, who to me looked like a magical duende, a Santa Claus off duty:  hair tousled from the winds, well-worn jeans, shirt not totally tucked in with an occasional spot of chile. New Mexico chile, of course.    I made my way over to his table, introduced myself and asked if I could sit and visit.  “Of course!” he said, smiling as he waved me to the open seat next to him. I sat down, but I soon learn I wouldn’t be sitting much longer.  I’d be dancing.

A few days later my Ghost Ranch class and I were at the cafe called Socorro’s in Hernandez, an area not far from the ranch and Abiquiu.  Plates of food came steaming hot from the kitchen–enchiladas smothered with the flavor of New Mexico—red and green chile, onion, cheese, frijoles.  Posole, the puffed corn stew that takes over where hominy leaves off, shoulders up to spicy rice and the whole combination ended up dancing off the plate and into my mouth. Our group was dancing too—or trying–to the songs of Tio and his longtime friend Socorro who ran the restaurant.. Her husband and son were belting out a lively instrumental backup on guitar and trumpet and in the tiny cafe the sound was deafening.  I and the class didn’t have a clue how to dance to this music, but were are dancing anyway, happily providing entertainment for locals in the cafe.  Smiles abounded amidst the pounding beat, spicy chile sauce and Spanish canciones.

I was told that Socorro was a major mariachi diva back in the day and I believed it. Her voice boomed out louder than the instruments as she smiled widely while waving her hands rhythmically in the air.  She’s had on her kitchen work clothes and apron but in my eyes she was spotlighted on stage, glittering with silver braid around a black gabardine jacket and skirt, complete with a white cotton blouse and big bright red bow tie.

Socorro Herrera at her restaurant in Hernandez, NM

Mariachi music is often called la musica de la gente (music of the people), evoking stories of triumph and sorrow, betrayal and heroism, life and death.  It’s the strand that weaves together baptisms, graduations, weddings, reunions and festivals of all kinds, the gorilla glue that’s been keeping generations of many northern New Mexicans together. And it’s the music Tio said he’d been making since he was two years old. For good description of mariachis see:

 “The older generation was very musically inclined.” Tio said. “It was a way to relax.  There were lots of dances where local bands played.”  At some point he began to record music of his own on 45 rpm records but ironically had no player on which to listen to them until some unknown person gifted him with one on his doorstep. Gifts from unknown and unseen angels—it’s a theme that runs through Tio’s life.  But he had to deal with some not so better angels when it came to getting his music in the public ear.

“I had bad experiences with the Spanish language stations,” Tio shared.  “They had an unwritten rule: you pay to play.  The FCC said you should support the community but they weren’t playing local music.  I’m embarrassed to say it was the ‘gringo’ stations that agreed to air my music every now and then.”

Back in Tio’s early years a traveling troupe of entertainers wound its way up from Albuquerque and into the isolated villages of northern New Mexico, bringing music, cuentos y dichos—modes of storytelling that kept the culture vibrant.  Imagine the 1957 hit Broadway show Music Man with a local version of Robert Preston rolling into town—maybe not with 76 trombones, but still with lots of fanfare and great anticipation.  Tio joined the troupe dressed as a clown and acting every bit the part.  He must have been in his perfect element among the puppets and ventriloquists, musicians and assorted members of the traveling troupe. Tio’s grandfather was also a clown in the shows.  They say humor is the best medicine and so it must have been for him.“He never smiled except when he was a clown with the Maromero,” Tio recalled, “and then only once in a while.”

As he got older, Tio stepped outside his familiar world, venturing into the Los Angeles music scene a bit. During high school he worked for a Spanish language radio station and traveled around the Southwest as a news reporter. He even tried out Catholic seminary for a few years. “But honest to goodness with the temper I have, I would tell the priest off.”

For most of his life, though, Tio kept close to the land near the village of Abiquiu, where he was born in 1948. A starkly beautiful area, the valley is sheltered by shoulders of tall red, ocher and gold mesas. From some places you can see the flat-topped volcanic butte known as Pedernal to the Spanish, and Tsi Ping to the original Pueblo Keres people. The Chama River originating in Colorado snakes its way through the valley amidst a tangle of cottonwood trees, salt cedars, willows and high desert cactus and plants that have adapted to the sometimes-punishing winds and extreme temperatures. Occasional rain storms can be fierce, flooding everything in their path.

The now famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe made her way to this harsh and beautiful desert environment seeking quiet and inspiration for her work in 1929. She first landed in Taos, then Ghost Ranch and finally settled in Abiquiu. Tio worked for her part time from 1959 to 1971, helping her around the house and garden.

Tony Vaccaro, Georgia O’Keefe with “Pelvis Series, Red with Yellow” and the desert, 1960. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Courtesy of Tony Vaccaro studio.

“Miss O’Keeffe loved nature.  She had me come to work early in the day so we could watch the sunrise.  She really taught me to love nature,” he said.  “When I drove her out somewhere to paint, she wouldn’t just sketch anything, only do a real painting. And she said she ‘just made the mountains.” One time when he drove her out to paint the landscape, she told him she would paint the Pedernal (original name by Keres First Nation Pueblo of Cochiti is Tsi Ping) enough times that it would become “hers.” In a way her determined goal came true: after her death in 1986, her ashes were spread atop the iconic volcanic feature. But instead of the mountain becoming hers, it was more like she became part of the mountain.

Tsi Ping or Pedernal Peak in the mist

Tio remembered that Miss O’Keeffe would repeatedly urge him to be independent, go to school, and to have the discipline to do whatever he wanted in life. He took her advice and put that discipline to work. For over 20 years (1972-98) he was a stone mason, hauling 8,900 loads of rock and going through 42 trucks. He was given the secret of how to do the work by another stone mason.  It was hard labor for sure, but if he’d only known what he knows now it would have been easier, he says.

“An Indian friend once told me to listen to what the rocks were saying. I thought that was silly.  A rock doesn’t have any understanding.  But it was actually me who didn’t have the understanding!  Once I caught on and figured it out, the rocks were gentler to me.  I stopped smashing my fingers and could move them more easily.  I was told by the rocks not to clear all of them out of one area.  Cooperate with nature and leave some for the next generation.

“Everything in nature has a way of working in harmony with humans.  But people have to do the right things so nature will do its part. With good attitude comes good weather.  Not just one person should do this but thousands.”  Then added some more sage advice: “Just try listening to a 500-year-old cottonwood tree.  You have to listen a long time and be at ease and serene in your life.  Listen with a good heart and put away negativity.  A tree is a very sensitive thing; but it and anything in nature will respond.  If we pay attention to certain signs, we can tell when things are going to happen.”

But Tio wasn’t always paying attention. “Sometimes I was sure my truck had broken down because some of the stones I had were not intended to move from their spot.” One cold winter late afternoon his truck became disabled in a remote and isolated location. Tio was worried, unsure of what to do. There was no one in sight and the darkness was quickly clamping down around him. Suddenly in the distance he saw headlights of a vehicle, coming closer to his location.  Then he could hear tires slowly crunching on the frozen dirt road. The car arrived and out stepped a total stranger.

Inquiring as to who he was, the stranger cryptically replied, “I’m just helping out people who get stranded.”  And where are you from, Tio asked.  The reply, just as inscrutable: “Oh, a place you wouldn’t even know about.”  The stranger walked back to his car and returned quickly with the exact tools and part needed to get Tio’s truck up and going.  Then he departed into the dark.  Quickly Tio climbed the hill to watch where the stranger’s car headed but there were no lights and no sound of a vehicle in any direction.

Tio’s life was filled with the kind of inscrutable that some would call angels or visitations of divine apparitions. Towards the end of his stonemason career, he smashed his hand severely, crying out to the patron Saint Jude of Desperate and Lost Causes, “If you think you can change my life, do it!”  In a week he had a different job and ever after he kept a candle lit at the foot of a statue to the Catholic saint. “Maybe he’s the one that helped me out on that cold winter afternoon when my truck broke down,” Tio mused.One time he was watering plants outside his house and heard someone call his name.  No one was around, but then he saw a “very pretty young lady floating in the air above the trees.”  He felt fearful at first, but then she spoke in very gentle soothing tones. “She talked about a lot of things that would happen in the future and showed me a large animal chewing on the world,” he said.  “Then she told me I was going to be very sick but that she would take care of me and I’d live past 95 years old.”

Not all his close encounters were with the metaphysical, but they were definitely tinged with the mystical as well as the amusing.  Like his encounter with what he called the “bus queen.” Tio once owned a school bus which he was tinkering with to turn into a traveling van or even a place to live.  But he gave it up to a homeless man who was living in a car and struggling with dialysis.  He was on a search for another school bus when he met a woman from Colorado who said she had over 100 buses and would give him one.  Twenty-two years later the Colorado woman called and told him, “I might take a long time but I don’t forget.”  Soon after he got his new bus.

Tio and friends at his school bus “summer home”

Then there was the Halloween night when neighbor boys pulled a trick and partly painted his truck black and white, “like a Holstein cow or the Gateway computer logo.”  The truck had been repeatedly revived with 10 motors and had “a million plus 32,000 miles on it.”  The only original things on it were the cab and doors.  Tio’s response to the prank?   He went directly to the boys’ house (correctly surmising who the culprits were), sternly confronted them in front of their parents and then gave them a Halloween trick or treat of his own.“You did a good job,” he said with I imagine a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “But it wasn’t good enough.  I want you to finish painting the truck.”  They did.  The story got around the Abiquiu valley and traveled with Tio wherever he drove the Gateway Holstein cow truck.

There were also aliens from other worlds.  Tio said he had encounters himself, but an uncle who was a sheepherder near Roswell had one to be remembered for sure.  As Tio told it: “My uncle was out with the sheep one day when he saw a big flash of light and heard a crashing sound on the land.  He went over to see about the commotion and found a strange looking vehicle on the ground and odd little men in brown skirts running around like they were in shock.” Tio said almost immediately his uncle was visited by government agents in large black cars who told him to leave the area and that they would take over from there.  This was in 1947, the date most ascribed to the Roswell Incident, which the U.S. Military claims was a nuclear test surveillance balloon.  Fact or fiction?  Military operation or extraterrestrial visit?

In recent years, Tio stepped a bit more out of the radar to live on a patch of high desert land near Abiquiu.  He was harder to find, out of cell phone range. No land line, but on the land for sure. He mailed me directions to his place, and one day I and some visiting friends decided to find him.  It felt like a treasure hunt with cryptic clues:  turn past the second fence post after the third dirt road; don’t take the left fork, it will get you lost; look for the large juniper tree on your right….and so on.  I think we did take the wrong fork, had to backtrack, and had to be careful not to get the tires stuck in an arroyo with deep sand.  Climbing up a hill on the rutted road, we found the remote valley where his summer home—a converted school bus—and his winter home—a metal shed—were situated. As we drove up, Tio emerged from the bus, his always smiling self, to greet us.  On a tour of the place, he shared that friends had paid to install a small propane heater in the shed and one day a set of brand new mattresses mysteriously showed up at the doorstep.  Another of those inscrutable gifts from the mysterious unknown that have visited Tio throughout his life.

As remote as it seemed, I knew that if I could fly like a raven I could take a short direct path and flap over the McMansions bulldozed into the hills and former farm fields of the Abiquiu Valley.  It got me thinking. A lot lies beneath the surface of the iconic red chiles hanging at the front door, like at my own house. Generations of colonialism and traumatic cultural conflict continue to the present day and show up in many sad and distressing ways here.  Economic hardship in New Mexico is pervasive, so much that people sometimes say when the nation’s economy goes for a deep dive, it isn’t noticeable here.  I suppose I’m an unwitting part of the gentrification and social displacement, a product of privilege in my own way. As I said, it got me thinking.

Some people might see Tio’s life as one of poverty, wonder how he could live like that and then they might pass on by to find photo opts of the intensely blue skies or Georgia O’Keeffe’s house in the village or attend seminars at Ghost Ranch like the ones I taught.  I was reminded of British author Rodger Housden’s experience writing Sacred America: the Emerging Stories of the People. Traveling across the country he stopped in Santa Fe and for some inexplicable reason he was interviewing me for the book and had joined one of our Earth Walks events.  He shared this insight: “I was in Moab Utah trying to find a woman who local people told me I should meet due to her profound insights.  Eventually I made my way to her tiny trailer in the desert.  There wasn’t even room for me to sit down, but I felt like I was in the grandest palace in the world. I’ve been in those palaces, too,” he added, “and have felt literally claustrophobic by the smallness of spirit.”

As our visit continued, Tio lamented, “So many places have been taken over by newcomers. There is more dishonesty, deceit.  They try to regulate the old timers with laws and restrictions.  They make honest to goodness people smaller, calling them old fashioned because they are kind.  They are doing things that aren’t environmentally sound, like using dangerous pesticides for farming rather than the old natural methods.”He was quick to add, though, that “there are a lot of good newcomers.”

Tio didn’t invent a cure for some disease, travel around the world in record-breaking speed or land on the moon.  He did, however, help keep traditions of New Mexico alive.  Like many native New Mexicans he was anciently rooted in the spirit of place and the power of kindness, seasoned with fierce confidence, a good dash of humor and belief in miracles.“A stone mason got me started with doing that kind of work early on,” Tio said.  “It’s like putting a puzzle together, finding the pieces that fit.  It’s helped me deal with my problems of life.  The rocks have to fit in a special way, just as things had to fit together in a certain way in my life so I could do what I wanted to do.”

Honest to goodness, indeed.

Harvest Moon with Earth Walks at Synergia Ranch, NM

The Dome at Synergia Ranch, near Santa Fe, NM

Earth Walks for Health (the name of the nonprofit program when it was sponsored by the New Mexico Foundation for Human Enrichment and provided a focus for people dealing with HIV and AIDS.) spent harvest full moon weekend October 24, 1999 with Bea Duran, her mother Ignacia Duran and aunt Priscilla at Synergia Ranch near Santa Fe, NM.

   Bea Duran of Tesuque Pueblo

Nearly 20 people attended on a beautiful, warm autumn weekend, sharing under the apple trees as leaves dropped gently in the breeze.  The full moon rose in the evening as we chanted and played drums of a Tewa honor song. There was storytelling, marshmallows, laughter and dancing around the bonfire as we walked slowly around the fire, following the pace of Richard, who was using a walker due to health complications of HIV. I awoke early morning the next day to call of the full moon on the western horizon. Breakfast was made by the group in the dining hall to the radio tunes of black gospel and gales of laughter to high heaven.  Then a three-hour wisdom circle and drumming in the dome during which Bea and I quite spontaneously stood behind Richard as he shared his challenges of dealing with his health complications.  Bea was a drum maker and I end up purchasing one of her larger drums, which to me resonated with love, power and expansion of  her creative and prayerful intentions, her Indigenous traditions and the weekend shared together in community.


Chaco Canyon Calling! June 2023



The Flute at Sunrise–Chaco Canyon

JUNE 16-18, 2023
(Just a few spaces left–register soon!)
On the mesa at Chaco. You. Native American flute plays as birds sing the day awake. First rays of sunrise warmly greet you.
If you’ve been to Chaco Canyon New Mexico before, you most likely want to return.  If you’ve never been to this profound World Heritage site, this is your opportunity for a wonderful immersive experience.  Chaco is vast, silent and filled with the voices of the Ancestors in ancient Pueblo sites, rock art known as petroglyphs and phenomenal archeoastronomy reflected in its buildings.  Then there are the stars at night! 
In fact, this will be New Moon when the night sky will especially display her sparkling glory.  We will be in the Canyon close to Summer Solstice, when special features of the ancient buildings receive the first rays of light in a remarkable display of architecture and the natural world.
Cultural resource guide for  the group will be respected elder and artist Bea Duran of Tesuque Pueblo.  Bea considers Chaco to be ancestral heartland and homeland and her humor and goodwill radiates a warm welcome to all.

Bea Duran of Tesuque Pueblo

Prior to the two night camping trip, the group will meet  with Ehren Kee Natay, a local Indigenous multi-media artist and recognized member of the Dine Nation with Kewa Pueblo, Irish and German ancestry. Deeply connected to his ancestral traditions, Ehren will share his understanding of historical and contemporary Indigenous culture, dispelling myths along the way.
His creative work has shown internationally and can be found at two New Mexico Heritage Museums. His current work further infuses his musical craft in Native American flute and drumming with visual aesthetics via live-performance. In his words, “I have a prayer, a spirit, a breath that is inside me.  It tells me to create. It cannot be silenced.  It can only be quiet by creating.”  

It is this spirit and breath that can be found in Chaco Canyon. I hope you will join us in this journey of discovery.

Doug Conwell, Earth Walks

For more details, cost and registration information contact    There is limited space available so be in touch as soon as you can!

“We are the World!”

We Are the World

I did not want to host the Earth Walks at my home that November 2 in 1998. As an Indigenous friend who had considered moving in as a housemate had said, there were “spirits” there that were not good. I had certainly seen evidence of that myself. I moved to Rio en Medio after I had to leave my Upper Canyon Road home since it was being sold.  I could not find a rental in Santa Fe that I liked and the Rio en Medio location, though way above my price range, was in the country adjacent to an acequia (irrigation canal), orchards, a small pond and a small stream. I could see the Jemez Mountains from the place, which was to me the symbolic fire on the mountain” volcano that was part of the McKenzie Klan emblem on my mother’s side of the family. But once I moved to the house (actually a 5,000 square foot double wide mobile home that included an attached carport, full basement, two story greenhouse and studio) I discovered many negative aspects of the place.

Church at Rio en Medio

Church at Rio en Medio

Search as I did, I could not find another suitable location for the Earth Walks for Health weekend.  There were to be people attending with serious health problems so I called our guide for the weekend, Maria Elena Orona to ask her advice.  Maria Elena was of Mexican Huichol/Raramuri/Tahono O’odam ancestry and was considered a “dream healer.”  She was also a devotee of the east Indian avatar Mata Amritanandamayi.  I trusted her guidance implicitly.  In truth, she told me, there are spirits moving everywhere, spirits that have not found their final resting place.  We were to be doing a purification ceremony that she said would create a doorway of light for the spirits to pass through for their own peace and for our healing as well.  I decided to offer my home, but little did I know what was to take place–on many levels.

Maria explained that Winter Ceremony is a time of acknowledging, thanking and receiving the blessings of our ancestors and in so doing helping health and bring benefit to not only those souls and our own but those to come in the future.  Those who came to this particular Earth Walks included a mother and her three daughters whose husband/father has passed about a year before and people from Indigenous, Hispanic as well as Anglo ancestry.  We did several rituals with Maria Elena which were to “purify the mind,” and created an altar for our loved ones with their pictures, sharing flowers, candles and prayers.  Dinner was delicious, a portion of which was first brought to the altar with a prayer by Maria Elena.

After the evening concluded, I felt a deep sense of peace not only for myself and the others but for the land we were on.  It was my sense that this valley with its relatively constant source of water had been a place of intense struggle and conflict over time, at least since the coming of Europeans.  When I first moved to Santa Fe, I was told as an outsider Anglo I would not be welcome.  There had unfortunately also been a history of drug and alcohol abuse in the valley.  By the time I moved here, much of that had changed, but I felt that the sad part of its history lingered in dark shadows and recesses.

Album Cover for USA for Africa

After the ceremony and all had gone to sleep, I walked into the open field below the house.  The clouds parted and the moon emerged.  I felt so positive about what had happened that I spontaneously broke into the song, “We Are the World.”    It truly felt that the Winter Ceremony had helped to lift at least some of the disturbing energies of the valley that night. As Maria Elena said, “we helped open a portal through which these and other souls may be with God.”  Just before that time, my father had passed and I felt the ceremony helped Daddy on his journey.  It was the week of my birthday as well and I felt thankful for the gatherings with Earth Walks participants that had occurred and those that were to come. We are the world indeed and I prayed that the healing work that night in some way might be of benefit to others.