I Walk the Line · March 11, 2006

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The Church of Scientology constructed an elaborate underground bunker to store the works of L. Ron Hubbard just twenty miles from my home. They cut it in secret, deep into steep sides of a scrub-tiled mesa in the middlest of middle nowhere. My son, 11, told me this as we drove through parched piñon-lined winter ranches in late December.

"Mom, listen, you gotta hear this!"

He rattled off a list of rumored facts - something about steel lined tunnels, two UFO landing pads carved into sold rock, and titanium etched records that can be played on a solar-powered turn table. I didn't hear his words. My throat gathered in a mother's lump at the new deepening of his voice, the way he held the newspaper folded in half with hands so much like a man's. He leaned forward and poked me in the side and my hands jumped, let the car lurch toward a nest of resting cattle.

"Mom! The bunker can survive a nuclear blast! The Scientologists say that after a blast the words of L. Ron Hubbard will be more important that ever."

11 snickered at this last part. His dark cowlick fell over one eye, and I noticed again how he looked more like me than any of my other children. He continued reading the news article to himself while his younger brother, 8, cocked his head to the side to read an advertisement for a movie about an overgrown ape.

He has the unyielding skepticism of his father, I thought. We know the future from the seeds we plant today. We can let our minds stray far into a black tomorrow, look at the trail of memory behind us, know what loaded weapons me might need to carry under our arms. Maybe the Scientologists need those books tucked into the furrows once dotted with Spanish missions, the space once inhabited by graceful people of the ancient lands. Maybe they just need to know they are safe, protected by nature's arid indifference.

"Oh, Mom!" 11 raised head from the paper once more with an expression of surprise and haughty delight. "I'm taller than Tom Cruise! Hey, what's a thetan?"

I tried not to let him see me giggle. The road curved past the two radio towers signaling across the start of the Great Plains. I saw my tiny town below us, cradled by the New Mexican Rockies.

"You see the town?" I pointed in the general direction of our house, kept my voice level and simple, the tone of the mother trying to teach a lesson. "We live among ten thousand people. Some of them are taller than you. Some of them are shorter. Some are smarter, or more musical, or better at Chinese checkers. Now as for thetans, I have no earthly idea what the heck they are. Some kind of Scientology belief."

I searched "thetans" on the internet that night while 11 looked over my shoulder. According to Scientology, the thetan is the spiritual being. The thetan is the individual, another word for soul. We read a lot more about thetans, too, from websites critical and concerned. We read about the collection of expensive fees, about people who claimed cult, about people who claimed spiritual salvation. What a complicated mess.

"Come on, Mom. Can you sell Avon at the secret compound? Can I come?" 11 pushed my hands off the keyboard and clicked a link showing a topological map of the Scientologists' mystery archive. "Come on, Mom! Tom Cruise is rich! You read all that stuff about them making a lot of money with those classes. You might sell a lot of makeup."

The boy had a point. I printed out the map, and opened my word processing program to make a targeted flier for my potential new rich and unusual customers. Lipsticks that every thetan needs! Ten tips for looking great at your next Audit! Beauty Secrets not found in Dianetics! I folded my fliers in half and stuffed them into the latest Avon brochures along with samples for the new Avon Anew Age Intensive Treatment. Even thetans gotta worry about wrinkles, I figured.

"OK, kids! Let's hit the road! We need a good adventure! 11, you're in charge of navigation and the binoculars. Let's see if we can locate the front door to this mystery mound. 8, you're in charge of snack dispersal! I'll watch the Avon. Keep your eyes peeled for Tom and Katie!"

We piled into my car, faced East, headed down Highway 104 toward the forgotten village of Trujillo, toward the unknown, eating Fritos and drinking bottles of Carizozo cherry cider.

The road to Trujillo passes nothing, nothing but a pistol-pitted sign welcoming travelers to the Great Plains, nothing but dry wind and gold prairie, the asphalt twisting in deference to property line and gulch, a thousand cows standing bored sentinel. 11 and 8 took turns with the binoculars, spying on ranchers in crusted boots, scrawny cowdogs, a lone peregrine falcon hovering over a patch of quiet grass. I drove slower than the speed limit, watched the sun fall from my ears to shoulder in the rear view mirror.

"Mom, do you think we'll find it? Do you think they'll buy some Avon?" 11 cleared his throat and picked up the glossy tabloid I purchased as we filled our tank with gas. "Why do people believe this stuff anyway? It says here that the Scientologists think an alien named Xenu stuffed us full of evil spirits. That's crazy."

He rested his head against the window, his eyes scanning left to right as he read about a pilot who flew over the secret compound. I knew he didn't expect an answer. I kept silent. I thought about the Avon samples I taped inside the brochures, tiny lipsticks in cherry and sandalwood, the new Anew Intensive Age Treatment for Day, rub-on fragrance swatches of Imari and Today. Do Scientologists wear makeup? Do they eschew matters of the flesh? I wasn't sure, only knew that this trip was for my boys, for me, a way to pass time in our new town, a means of gathering new dust on our feet.

We turned with the highway at Trujillo. A black dog with open sores laid at the entrance to a vacant service station, his tail wagged, hit the side of the old-fashioned pumps. A swarm of flies rose from his body, fell again.
"Mom! This town only has five houses!" 8 counted two mobile homes, a shack, a simple stucco residence, another, until they disappeared behind us, until we turned with the road again and the plains turned to red rock canyon, turned to a deep dip in the earth, and I slowed to ten miles per hour, kept the car from sliding too fast down the steep mountain.

11 grabbed the map and matched our position with the satellite imagery. "Ok. Mom, we're almost here. Look, see that mesa?" I followed the line of his arm and pointed finger across the scarlet land to a huge oval protrusion of sage and rock and sunburnt clay.

8 squirmed in the backseat. He watched me watching 11 and he raised his voice in surprise. "I know why they serve Red and Green chili everywhere in New Mexico!"

I turned off the road, onto a hard dirt trail, let the car idle in park as 11 continued his search and map. "Yeah? Why is that?"

"It's the land. It's all red and green. This is a Christmas canyon."
I stepped out of the car. 8 was right. The land spoke of chilies and twinkling lights, all the shades of ochre and sage an artist can create, all the shades beyond the palette. I raised my digital camera and began snapping pictures of the Scientologist's mesa, my body just yards away from the rise of ground, while 11 gazed at the top with his spy glasses and 8 ran free, collecting bits of rock and pebble to take home.

I wonder how long it would take to hike to the top? I stared at the mesa, calculated its steepness, its height. We could take our snacks and hike to the top, get a glimpse of those landing pads, maybe see an entrance.

I turned to return to the car and nearly dropped my camera in surprise. A long black Lincoln sat parked behind my vehicle. My boys didn't notice. 11 sat on a boulder, the map spread between his hands, a pencil between his teeth. 8 kneeled on the ground in front of a pile of stones, lifting one on top of the other. I stared at the Lincoln, tried to glimpse the occupants, but the dark windows reflected the falling sunlight. My heart began to race.

"Boys! Let's get back in the car and drive around to the other side of the mesa, OK?" I yelled. My words echoed off the Scientologist's hill. I turned to look at the Lincoln, and as my boys ran to the car, a woman in a navy blue suit opened the door and stepped out.

"Excuse me, Ma'am?"

I handed my camera to 11 as he jumped in the car. I stuck my hands inside my jeans and flapped my elbows in greeting.

"Hey there! Nice day, isn't it? Don't you just love Corazon Canyon?" I watched 11 remove the lens cap of the camera out of the corner of my eye, watched him focus on 8, snap pictures of outstretched tongue and crossed eyes.

"Excuse, me," the woman repeated. "Why are you here? Why are you taking photographs of that formation?" She pointed one well-manicured index finger toward the mystery mesa. The sun reflected off her careful mauve polish, and I noticed she wore a diver's water-resistant watch.

"To tell you the truth, I'm looking for the Scientologists. I'm selling Avon and I figured they might enjoy having a local rep supply them with makeup and skin care items. It's thirty miles to town and the only stores in town are Walgreens and Wal-Mart. Avon has better products than you can get in town, so I thought I might pick up a few new customers. Do you know about the secret archive compound? It was on CNN and everything." I kicked my right cowboy boot against the other and grainy red dust sprayed against a hubcap.

"Is this the formation?" The woman's hair moved as one unit, and I tried not to stare.

"Yes, it sure is. I have the satellite maps and this is it. No doubt about it. The mesa is distinctive, and it sits at the base of this canyon. The airstrip should be directly behind that hill and the UFO landing pads in that direction." I pointed toward the east, and my face grew red in embarrassment as I realized my fingernails weren't painted. Grit and Frito salt and the slight red stain of cherries dotted my uneven cuticles. Some Avon Lady I am, I thought. Crap.

"I'm researching this location for a news expose. Don't you think these people are crazy?" She leaned into her vehicle and pulled out a fancy camera with a telescoping lens, a tripod, a stenographer's pad with illegible notation in angled script. "The article is going to focus on the ways they keep people from leaving the church. I'm just here to get some photographs. You should stay clear of them if you're smart. You think you're selling Avon, but if you sell it to them I guarantee it'll be your soul next. Look at Katie Holmes."

I laughed as she drove the feet of the camera stand into the arid soil, thought about Tom Cruise's fiance, thought about the ways I caved into the lifestyle demands of men in my past.

"We all link with things we believe brings up closer to the source, don't you think? Sometimes we pay a heavy price, though, until we discover we already hold the truth in our hearts." I scratched the small of my back, saw 8 lean out of his window, open his mouth.

"Hey, Mom! Are you talking to a thetan?" The backseat exploded into giggles, and I rolled my eyes. Reporter Lady didn't care. She attached her equipment to the tripod and held a light meter in her left hand.

"I don't know what you're getting at, but the Scientologist's source is spelled C-A-S-H."

I placed an Avon brochure on her hood, waved goodbye, left her to measure and capture the bounce of the sun's rays, and pointed my car West, with the plan of circling the compound until I found a point of entry. We passed a metal road sign, bent over from a glancing blow from some pickup truck or the momentum of the eleven bullets that pierced it into a piece of silent cowboy art. The canyon was far behind us now, and only an occasional juniper and piñon broke the sun. The land spread in lumps, rises and dips in the sand, some places covered in mold-colored lichen, some places layered in gold and black sand underneath the constant wave of dry grass.

This desert doesn't care about Scientology, I thought. It felt like it was waiting for something, maybe a meteor to crash out of the skies or a bulldozer to drive through, turn it into something smart and complex current.

The road stretched out in front of us. It seemed to roll on forever, past one rock formation looking like all the others, then another, then a slice of sandstone, then an ancient juniper. We passed a coyote. She stood at the edge of the road as if waiting to cross. I could see rough skin under her coat, a crisscross of scars and wayward tufts of fur. She looked like she knew something interesting about us, and I turned my head to keep her in vision. We watched each other until she disappeared, a tiny dot like her fleas on the horizon. The sun framed her body, low in the sky, orange and swollen.

I turned past the West end of Trujillo, onto a dirt road that swirled into a spate of ghost structures next to a heavy modern metal gate. Ah, the Scientologist's gate. I pulled up close, let the engine idle. I couldn't get the image of the coyote out of my mind.

I am like that mangy coyote. I roam, I am restless. I carry the bite of fleas and the hope of a next meal.

The boys jumped out of the car, ran to the empty buildings, and I grabbed my Avon and approached the fence. It didn't answer my silent request for a sentinel. It lay locked and angry, so I did what any good Avon Lady would do. I hung the brochures from the handle and patted it for good luck. I waited for the boys to expend their energy, then we shoved off for home. One mile later, as the sun grew tired and close to the ground, 11 yelped.

"Oh my gosh! Mom! I think the lens cap fell out of the car at the ghost town where the gate was!"

I swung back to the gate, parked the car, found the cap resting in the red dust. But something else caught my eye, made my blood run a bit cold with anticipation and wonder. My brochures no longer graced the fence.

I blew across the lens cap, sending a micro-wave of dust toward the Scientologists' fence. I didn't alert the boys, didn't tell them my brochures evaporated like our sweat into the arid air. I leaned against the car, poured bottled water over the cap, swished it this way and that, dried it on my pink western shirt. 11 rolled down his window, threw out a crushed Frito, sunk back into the bench seat.

I glanced around the ghost town, tried to see a moving vehicle or a walking thetan, someone toting Avon goodies. Nothing. Nothing but the dead skulls of cholla cactus laying in random piles. The gentle blue flicker of a television set rolled morse code across the prairie. That ranch house is too far away. I wondering if someone hid behind the widowed church, the empty pineboard homes. The wind laughed at me, sent scattering shadows of juniper and piñon along the old truck tracks marring the ground.

"Boys, let's get outta here!" I jumped in the car and slowly backed onto the county road. I drove at a snail's pace home, wanted to breath the gold and purple sunset. I switched on the radio and the pathos of country western music filled the car, flew out the open windows to the layers of deep colored sandstone lining our road. A lone red hawk chased us, swooped high above the rocks, then fell just inches from the road. I watched him fly low to the ground, his talons extended toward invisible prey. He was missing at least two flight feathers and the remaining ones were ragged and broken. I thought I saw dry dust rise from the ground to meet him, but maybe it was our exhaust.

I know why the Scientologist's stole this mesa, I thought.

They know it captures shadows, shadows of dust and ruin and feather. They rise like a Phoenix. It's a place of reincarnation, rebirth.

A desert rat ran in front of my wheels, dodged death. I watched him freeze in the rear view mirror, then shake, run back from where he came.

I thought my story would end here, in a dinky ghost town bordering high strangeness. I thought I would tell you I never saw those brochures again, that I lost two dollars twenty cents in books and samples on a wild thetan chase. But I was wrong, four weeks wrong, one hundred thirty dollars wrong. My phone rang, just this past week, and I answered it though I didn't recognize the number.

"Hello, this is Birdie." I held the phone between my head and neck while my fingers typed out an email response to a friend.

"Yes. I know." The caller held her breath for a moment. I opened my mouth to speak, to ask what the heck she wanted, but she dove in, gave me a list of lotions and Avon bug spray fourteen items long. Her voice was cultured, sophisticated. She sounded Southern California. She sounded glamorous, urbane, so far from my New Mexican wilderness.

"Yes, ma'am! I can certainly get all of these products to you! Now, what's your address and telephone number, please?" I sat, poised, ready to strike, my ever-present open Avon brochure to my left.

"Sorry, I don't have a telephone. You can meet me at the Trementina Post Office, just please tell me when the goods will be ready."

I didn't know what to say. She must be a thetan! No glamour gals live in the prickly pear canyons. At least I didn't think any did. I pictured the "Post Office," a dirt driveway and a simple home that housed the boxes of ranchers and recluses on the other side of the Scientologists' mesa. I gave her a date. I gave her a time. I gave her a laugh, too, but she didn't respond.

This real-life story continues with Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, and Me


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