Return To Angel Fire

I left my cabin in Alma, Colorado, just about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. When I arrived at the Angel Fire Memorial, New Mexico, it was just about 8:15 p.m. and dark. The sun had gone down behind the surrounding hills at least an hour before. The final leg of the drive up from Taos was done mostly in four-wheel drive on a snow-packed, winding road. After getting off the main highway, it seemed like just a narrow lane that passed through the trees with a lot of bends and switch-backs.

The Memorial itself was well lit and visible from several miles off as the approaching road broke the trees and came down into the flat of a long, sweeping valley. The wind was blowing hard and moved the loose snow in sheets across the valley floor, obscuring the road with occasional white-outs, which made the driving treacherous for the last couple of miles. Angel Fire sits in a valley that is home to the wind gods.

I turned off the road and into an empty parking lot, not sure if I would find any of the buildings unlocked this late at night despite the lighting. The main building was locked, so I walked further down the path to check the Chapel. The walk was maybe 70 yards, the temperature was well below freezing as evident by the ice patches along the path, and the wind was clipping along at 30 miles an hour or more.

I could see that the grounds are well maintained. What the wind doesn't blow away is cleaned and plowed by the hand of man, with the parking lot cleared for the next day's visitors.

It was hard to tell exactly how deep the snow was. At the front of the building, where it had drifted, it appeared to be about waist deep. Out in the fields, from what I could see in the dark, it appeared to be only a foot or so deep, maybe not quite over the top of my boots but almost to the top of the long, wispy grass that sticks up through the white blanket like soft whiskers. The movement of the wind gave the ground surface a fluid appearance.

As I walked past the three flagpoles (the American flag with the DAV flag below it on the center pole, the New Mexico State flag and the POW/MIA flag at either side), the cloth was flapping so hard in the breeze that I wouldn't have been able to carry on a conversation. The howling of the wind and the crackling of the four flags were incessantly broken by the hard clanging against the aluminum poles by metal grommets and steel clips that held the flags to their roping. It was incredibly loud noise to be coming from such a serene setting. By the time I reached the Chapel door, my hands were complaining that I left my gloves in the jeep.

The Chapel is very sleek, architecturally sweeping, and fitted for the climate and terrain. Like the main building, it is white and blends in with the blowing snow, yielding to the wind with its curved design.

I moved into the Chapel; but, as tight and as warm as it was in there, the wind was a constant presence, moaning and howling and changing pitch and tone as it whistled around the corners and banged against the building walls. The floor, along the walls, was lined with potted Chrysanthemums. There were probably more than 100 of them, each with a name tag... In Memory Of... and the name of a Veteran.

Despite the challenging wind, there was a pervading comfort, both from the aura of the building itself and the vibration of the plants, offering a protective feeling from the harsh elements that waited just outside the door. All the dreading that I had done, during the drive up there, was somehow put to rest by this feeling of serenity.

The Chapel is arranged like a small amphitheater, with three tiers of ledges on the small arc with about 25 or 30 feet of ledge on the upper row. There are little round cushions to sit on arranged on the lower two ledges, ten cushions in all. The seating looks down into the front portion of the Chapel that physically forces one's perspective to a small flat stage area because the curved lines of the walls lead to that focal point. More Chrysanthemums covered that area. At the center point is a tall white pole with what looked like an "H" hanging on it; it could be an ambiguous cross of some modern design or it could be a symbol of something more universal.

The whole of the Chapel wall at this focal point, from floor to ceiling, has little square windows in it, maybe 8 by 10 inches each; and the distance from floor to ceiling is probably 40 feet. The light outside reflects off the white stucco wall that curves past just outside beyond the glass. So, from just about any position except straight on, it appears that it is a bright day outside because of the floodlights reflecting off the wall back into the building.

There is a way to look directly out the windows and actually see the surrounding valley, with its encircling darkness and blowing snow. I watched the stalks of dried plants and stringy grasses that line the valley ripple and thrash about as the invisible hand of the wind harshly caressed them.

I mentioned the feeling of comfort I had while sitting in the Chapel. I had not expected that. The feelings of discomfort and dread that I remembered from my first visit, that had been slowly building up in me as I drove to the site, just didn't exist anymore. But then, at this point in time, the main building was not open. And I felt that those particular thoughts and feelings might be waiting for me in that building.

But, they weren't here in the Chapel. Here was rest and solitude. And something more -- an "at-peace." I'm certain that I didn't bring it into the building with me. But I'm certain that I will leave the building with it.

I read from a plaque located on the Chapel wall: "At the sight of the heavenly throne, Ezekiel fell on his face, but the voice of God commanded, 'Son of Man stand on your feet and I will speak with you.' If we are to stand on our feet in the presence of God, what, then, is one man that he should debase the dignity of another? - David Westphall."

At the back of the Chapel, wrapped along the curve of the wall, is a display of 12 photographs. The display panel reads: "These photos of deceased Vietnam Veterans have been donated to the Memorial. Twelve are selected each month for placement here, and the next of kin are notified."

Now it is time to find a place to stay for the night. Time to rest up before entering the main building in the morning.


The small start-up ski area of Angel Fire, just down the highway from the Memorial, is geared for the trendy skier who can pay fairly steep rates for a night's lodging. I figured $82 was a bit much. About fourteen miles back the other direction is Eagle's Nest. Although it is relatively close to the ski havens and is still tourist oriented, they at least spoke reasonable economics.

I got a small cabin for $35. The original rate was $48; but when I asked where the best place would be to pull the Jeep around and avoid any local hassles if I just slept in it, something like the following conversation ensued:

"Well, son, it's gonna be a bit cold out there tonight. Besides, you probably wouldn't get a good rest for skiing tomorrow."

"Ah, well, sir. I'm not a skier. I'm just up here to visit the DAV Memorial at Angel Fire."

"Oh, say, you're real lucky that this is an off night because I can let you have that little cabin for $35, if you can handle that. And don't worry about what time you get up. We don't have much on the schedule for tomorrow, so there ain't no hurry. Oh, you don't drink coffee? Well, then, help yourself to the hot chocolate. There should be plenty of it on a table next to the coffee pot for heating the water."

"Much obliged, friend. Much obliged."

The wind kicked and banged the sides of the cabin like an angry prison guard through most of the night; but, all in all, it was comfortable and warm. Sometime around 3:00 the wind must have died down, because that's about all I remember; and there was a fine dusting of snow on everything when I woke up.

When I headed back to the Memorial, the highway snow plow crews were just coming back up the valley for their second pass, clearing the left lane of an inch or so of powder. The clouds were low and heavy, so there wasn't much of a chance that the sun would burn the snow off the road. A new flurry of snow flakes began to fall, with considerably less wind to push it around then the night before.

I was once again the only car in the parking lot, showing up at about 9:15, apparently the first customer of the day. Two cars were parked around back, indicating that at least the staff had arrived.

As I walked in the main door, I was first confronted by a map of Vietnam as well as a short chronology of the country from 3000 BC through 1975...real short...with the word "war" coming up a lot. That, along with some short statements of historical perspective, filled the front lobby. A turn to the left went to the Exhibit Area; a turn to the right went into a smaller room called the Veteran's Room. I went left.

The lights were low, and the place was silent with a somberness that reminded me of the last funeral parlor I was in. Great analogy to start off the day, you asshole, I thought to myself. Some of those memories of the first visit were coming back.

The center of the Exhibit Area is aesthetically cluttered with cloth banners hanging from the ceiling, displaying name and insignia of Army, Navy, Marine, Coast Guard, and Air Force divisions that served in Vietnam. These banners are intended to be "representative of the approximately 210 units" that served there.

The walls are lined with blow-ups of dozens of photographs, some black and white, some in color, depicting scenes of battle, of humanitarianism, of camaraderie, of technology and weaponry, and of the inevitable boarding of the Freedom Bird for home. The layout of the photos told the story of conflict and ambiguity -- a night time fire fight with streaking tracers placed next to a group of laughing kids playing with some GI's. A memorial to ambiguity; just my kind of place.

Off to one end, in a small area leading to the executive offices, is a section dedicated to the Women In Vietnam. This was later explained to me as an area of heavy emphasis and intensified interest. Veteran's Day 1995 will be dedicated solely to the Women Who Served. I talked briefly about it with Linda Vaughn, Assistant Director of the Memorial. She indicated she was currently trying to confirm a keynote speaker and expressed her interest in locating other women veterans who could participate. I promised I would pass the word along on the Internet. I shook the frail hand of Dr. Westphall, exchanged a few brief words that felt empty in comparison to what I was surrounded with, and went back to looking around the Exhibit Area.

On a stand next to The Woman's Display is a Field Service Chaplain's Kit, laid out and set up as if abandoned during use. I immediately thought of V-man and wished my camera hadn't jammed. But, then I figure maybe I can get him out here some day to look for himself.

I avoided a second room leading off the main Exhibit Area. I remembered then the images/vn/audio/visual display of the story of the Chapel, of the ambush that killed David Westphall and 12 of his platoon. And I remembered that there was a song about Angel Fire. I remembered that the whole display was controlled by the simple push of a button; and once it started, it was loud and overwhelming and had torn my soul on my last visit. I headed the other direction.

I was right about those feelings...those ones I noticed were missing last night. They were hiding, just waiting patiently for me in the main building, in that back room with a video tape of "the story of Angel Fire and the Vietnam conflict." Memory provided me with as much detail as I wanted to deal with: the presentation is formatted around the song Angel Fire, written and dedicated while the Memorial was being built by one of the local women (who was also a Navy veteran.)

I saw that room just sitting there, waiting to snare me, with no lights on inside, and remembered it was activated by a little button on the wall that starts the images/vn/audio/video presentation. It says "PUSH HERE FOR A VIDEO DEMONSTRATION," and I remembered that I didn't want to watch that movie again, and I didn't want to hear that song -- not right then.

The first time I was down here, five years ago, they had tapes of the song available for sale. I remember that my friend Linda had asked if I wanted to buy one of the tapes with that song on it as we were leaving, and I immediately said no. That was about five years ago.

Over the years I've chiefly remembered Angel Fire because it had that beautiful song related to it. I didn't remember any specifics about it, not what the words were or even exactly what the tune or melody was. Just that it was there. And as my eyes came to rest on that little button on the wall, I was certain that I didn't want to remember it, exactly...not just right then, anyway. I kept wandering.

The Veteran's Room is essentially a library of books, biographies of the KIA/MIA matched with donated pictures, and a lot of statuary and personal paraphernalia. Some of the statues are smaller renditions of more famous, larger statues. Shelves and book cases are lined with other memorabilia: letters, MIA bracelets, dog tags, insignia and patches, battle gear, helmets, flack jackets. Off in a corner was something new: a computer kiosk. The simple touch-screen format led me through a brief bio of selected KIAs and provided bits of geographical and historical data on Vietnam and the era of the 60s.

When I was finished there, I went back to talk to Linda Vaughn and Dr. Westphall; and I found that they no longer sold the tape with the Angel Fire song. But, I had the option of a few stores in a twenty-mile radius that might still have copies. Alternatively, the husband of the woman who wrote and sang that song is still a local to the area, and he generally kept a supply.

As I left the Memorial, I dropped a $20 bill in an enclosure, where it landed in an upturned helmet, and wondered if I'd have enough gas money to make it back to Denver. Then I started off on my journey to hunt up a copy of the Angel Fire song tape.

About ten miles down the road, up into the ski area, I found a potpourri shop that carried it. So I bought it. I put it into the tape player and drove on down the road. It's funny what a song can opened up the flood gates that I'd slammed shut the first time I heard it...and those feelings that I felt at Angel Fire.

I don't think there is a whole lot that is specific in the wording of the song itself that is significant. But the song is tied directly to my memories of that first visit to Angel Fire. One thing I knew, when I was in the Exhibit Area, was that I didn't want to push that button on the wall; because, if I did start crying or something, I didn't want to be in that place. But, out on the highway is a different story; and I told myself, as a consolation to chickening out while inside the building, that I'd be willing to do I did.

Driving out of the Angel Fire area was like driving out of a pit...a deep pit surrounded by high, dark, and foreboding peaks. It no longer felt like a beautiful, smooth valley. It felt like a hole. It was extremely cloudy, the entire area socked in by low hanging clouds. New snow was starting to blow in with a little more vigor as the late morning sun stayed hidden. Maybe it had been kidnapped by the wind gods.

The roads were wet but hadn't frozen up yet. And even though this is "my kind" of weather--the cold and the snow and the clouds, the high country and the mountain tops that just peek through the mist -- it felt gloomy. But, as I thought about it, it felt gloomy in some good kind of least I was driving out of a hole.

After those initial but very intense minutes of driving out of the area -- again passing through Eagle's Nest where I had spent the night, out toward Cimmeron heading east toward Raton -- the sun still didn't come out, but things got much brighter. The mountains became mountains again...the trees, the rocks, the iced-up stream, all fell into their proper place. The road that twisted and winded along the stream, between the trees and the hills, because comfortable again and easy to navigate like all roads should be. My mind was captured by the beauty of the landscape, the exquisite rock formations, the colors that blended so gracefully into the natural scenery. And I realized that I was mentally filling in that hole.

Filling in the hole. It's a nice concept to have, to set forth as a completion and a closure to an experience like this. But some questions remain: Was I successful in actually completing it? Is it closed? I suppose the answer will remain unknown until my next visit to Angel Fire. But next time, I won't wait so long to go back.

Copyright 1995 by John Paul Rossie, All Rights Reserved