The Glorieta Mesa as seen from the Pecos National Monument. For a full panorama view please click on the above photograph and then scroll right/left. Photograph: Arnold Woodworth.
I jumped as a snapping sound, sharp as a rifle shot, echoed through the clear air of the mesa. Turning my head, I saw a twelve-foot juniper tree, a ragged and dusty evergreen, trembling and shaking.
An enormous eagle with dark eyes and a hooked beak, had just launched himself from the biggest branch of the tree. The branch had broken under the weight of the big bird and the stress of the launch. Now that branch flopped down, hanging and swaying out over the edge of the mesa cliff. Only bark and splinters attached the shattered branch to the juniper tree.
I looked up. Just above me were the dark wings of an eagle, flared out against the pale blue winter sky. Updrafts from the Pecos River Valley, warm air from below that had forced its way up a thousand feet of mesa slope and cliffside, was lifting the great Eagle so that I had a clear view of his underbelly. I could see each of the tiny notches that edged the pinions of his great wings and his fanned-out tail feathers. Tucked against the underside of those tail feathers were two great eagle talons.
I heard the 'whup-whup' sound of eagle-wings as they beat up and down, sounding their counterpoint to the timeless silence of the mesa. One, two, three powerful wingstrokes, moving him away from me, away from the mesa's edge. And there the great eagle hung, suspended in the clear air, hovering no more than a few feet above me.
Like a master pilot, Eagle tilted his wings so that he lost a few feet of altitude. His wingfeathers shivered and trembled in attunement with the ever-changing currents of the ever-moving air. His tail feathers balanced every movement of the great wings.
Eagle floated further out, only a little ways away from the mesa cliffside. And then he stabilized himself so that he and I were at eye level, me seated next to the sheer drop of the mesa cliffside, and Eagle hovering a few feet away from me. Only the crystalline winter air kept Eagle from being dashed to the rocky ground more than a thousand feet below.
This must be a golden eagle, I thought. Nothing else could have that coloring, nothing else could be that large. But I had never heard of golden eagles living on the Glorieta Mesa. How could such a large bird survive up here on this waterless mesa?
I stared at the great golden bird as he hung, profiled in the chilled air. I felt myself to be floating with a sense of being out of my own body, even disembodied from my own breath, which kept jerking in and out, one quick, shallow gasp following another.
With an effort of will, I pulled myself back into my body. I silenced my gasps, and I sat there, frozen into stillness, not blinking, not breathing. One small movement might startle this beautiful wild creature, and he would be gone. And my spirit quietened as I accepted being in the presence of pure wildness.
Eagle hung there in profile, and the glare from his dark eye lanced through me like sun-fire. Even my thoughts faded as Eagle's fierce orders unfolded in my awareness. In his silence, Eagle said to me. "Take courage! Lift yourself up!"
The Indian children I had once taught would have told me I was experiencing a medicine quest, that this golden eagle was my messenger from the Great Spirit. For thousands of years, Indians from all the many pueblos of the Pecos Valley must have climbed this mesa on foot, climbing up to this sacred space of the Gods to hold their ceremonies.
I had a flash of remembrance, of the long-ago Eagle Dancer, Tony White Cloud, his moccasins softly thudding down on the adobe earth, his body silhouetted against the large campfire with the crumbling adobe walls of the old church ruins in the background, dancing among what everybody called the Old Pecos Ruins...