Fiction from the Left

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El Malpaís


El Malpaís

(The Badlands)

A Modern Folk Tale from the Left

Episode 1: A Vision Quest

“Don’t turn your back on me, Pop,” Oskar implored his father.

The older man was staring out the kitchen window at the meticulously cultivated fields of the family farm on the high plains of Colorado.

 “I respect what you do,” said the boy. “I really do, Pop. The way you plant seeds and coax life from the rocky ground is awesome. I’ve seen you do it even in dry years when nobody else could get anything to grow. I’ll never be able to tell you how much I admire that.”

His father turned around.

“You know that this will be yours someday,” he said, pointing out the window. “Farming is hard but it’s a good life—you live as a free man and the fruits of your labor belong to you.”

“This farm is your dream, Pop, not mine.”

The son looked out the same window but his eyes were focused beyond the fields and fences.

“I have to discover what’s out there for me.”

The man considered his fine, strong son for a minute and then, recalling the sturm und drang of his own restless youth, uttered the words that Oskar longed to hear:

“I understand, son. You have to do what’s right for you.”

El Malpaís

On the Trail Again

With his father’s blessing fresh in his mind and a rucksack on his back, Oskar left home and headed south to the Santa Fe Trail.

On his first night out Oskar heard something rustling in the bushes just beyond the flickering light of his campfire.

He picked up a hefty rock and lobbed it at the sound.

There was a bark in the dark and then a clear voice with a distinctly Spanish accent rang out:

Damn it, Oskar! You almost hit me!”

The boy jumped to his feet.

“Diego is that you?”

A magnificent lobo mexicano stepped out of the darkness into the circle of firelight. It was indeed Diego, Oskar’s faithful compañero who had accompanied him on his trek to California i three summers before. The wolf looked older now—his muzzle and coat showing traces of gray—but he was still a superb creature.

“I didn’t know if I would ever see you again,” said the boy stepping forward with outstretched arms.

“None of that!” snapped Diego, drawing back.

“When you freed me from the jaws of your father’s trap,” the wolf reminded him, “you gained a guardian for life.”

“Are you still killing chickens for a living?” laughed Oskar.

“Only during dry spells,” el lobo said with a straight face.

The boy sat back down and stoked his campfire and the wolf stretched out beside him.

“Where are we headed this time, little man? Back to California?”

“I’m not sure, Diego. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for.”

“Perhaps it’s not a specific destination,” the wolf suggested, “but the trip itself.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have often observed Indian boys your age leaving their pueblos and going on their vision quest.”

“What’s a vision quest?”

“It’s a journey where you get away from the rat race and fast until you get a vision of what to do with your life.”

Oskar thought about it for a minute.

“That’s exactly what I need to do,” he said. “Where would a guy go on a vision quest?”

“Most of the Indian boys around here go to Lookout Mountain beyond El Malpaís ii.”

“Do you know where it is?”

“Indeed I do,” replied el lobo.

“Then that’s where we’re headed,” announced Oskar.

El Malpaís

El Rio Grande

In the heart of New Mexico, as Oskar and Diego approached the Rio Grande on their trek to Lookout Mountain they spotted a familiar figure camped on the opposite bank.

“Well, well, well,” the wolf chuckled. “Look who’s still making tracks in the sand.”

It was Tatcho, the old man who had helped them defend the Gila cliff dwellings against vandals on their odyssey through the Southwest. He recognized the pair and motioned for them to cross over.

Amigos!” he exclaimed, embracing the boy and eying el lobo mexicano. “I see that you’re still running with that mangy predator!”

“And I see that you’re still a practicing predator yourself,” said Diego indicating the rabbit roasting on a spit over the old man’s campfire.

“I am,” Tatcho laughed. “Please join me for supper.”

He nodded at the wolf. “Both of you.”

After they had finished eating and catching up on their latest adventures, Tatcho turned the conversation to the future.

“Where are you headed on this journey?”

“To Lookout Mountain,” replied Oskar. “I want to go there for my vision quest.”

Tatcho looked the boy over. The lad was a full six inches taller than when they had last met and his frame had filled out considerably.

“You’re ready for your quest,” the old man declared. “And Lookout Mountain is a good place for it.”

Tatcho looked toward the setting sun.

“But keep away from El Malpaís.”

El Malpaís

The Legend of El Malpaís

“Why?” asked Oskar.

He and Diego listened with rapt attention as the old man explained.

“It is a forbidding place,” said Tatcho. “El Malpaís is hellish hot and almost impossible to navigate. There is no water and shade is sparse and scattered. The paths lead nowhere and the fields of black lava are littered with the bones of animals that wandered into The Badlands.”

“The geography of EL Malpaís is unique. The landscape was shaped by rivers of fire belched up from the center of the earth. Big lava tubes were formed when the molten rock crusted over and receded. No one knows how far they reach under the surface of The Badlands, but the ages of the four main lava tubes have been established. EL Calderon is the oldest. It was followed by Cerro Hoya, Bandera, and, finally, McCarty’s Flow.”

The old man paused and shifted his gaze westward, looking beyond the horizon:

“The legend of El Malpaís predated the science. The legend, passed down from generation to generation, holds that the lava tubes are Tubos de Tiempo, time tubes, and to enter them is to enter the flow of time.”

“Travel through time?” Oskar asked, totally captivated by the idea.

“That’s what the legend claims,” said Tatcho.

“Journey into the past and the future?”

“Theoretically.” The old man could hear the enthusiasm in the boy’s voice. “But it’s only a theory.”

“What do you think, Tatcho?”

The old man shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What I do know is there are more things in the heavens and earth than I will ever see.”

“Have you ever been to El Malpaís?” Oskar asked.

“When I was young I ventured into the badlands. I looked down into EL Calderon,but I didn’t go in.”

“Why not?” asked Diego.

Tatcho hesitated for a minute: “I had heard the rumors of The Badlands and I was afraid of what I might see.”

The trio fell silent for a moment.

Finally, the old man cleared his throat and spoke:

“It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to El Malpaís—you’re headed for Lookout Mountain, and you’re going to have to get permission from the Council of Indian Nations to pass through their lands.”

El Malpaís

Through the Nations

Oskar and Tatcho left Diego in the sagebrush when they entered the pueblo to seek an audience before the Council of Nations.

The old man introduced himself and the boy to the august committee of men and women.

“It is our scared duty,” one of the elders announced, “to protect the sovereignty and future of the nations. Part of that duty is to vet everyone who enters our lands. Why do you wish to pass through?”

“The boy…” Tatcho began.

Another council member cut him off, “Let the boy speak for himself.”

Oskar addressed the committee in a firm, clear voice:

“I am on my vision quest. I want permission to go to Lookout Mountain.”

A murmur passed through the council.

“Is there a problem with that?” Tatcho asked.

“Most of our boys go to Lookout Mountain for their vision quest, but it has never happened before that a child of the white people has made such a request,” another of the members explained.

“I’ll respect your traditions,” Oskar said. “But I need to go. I have to go.”

The men and women of the council conferred for a moment and then one of them announced their decision to Tatcho:

“He can go only if he has a medicine man to prepare him and stand by to counsel him when he returns. Are you his medicine man?”

“I am,” Tatcho declared.

The councilman nodded to Oskar.

“You may go, son. But be warned—do not enter El Malpaís.”

“Why not?” asked Oskar.

“Against our advice, some of our boys have gone into The Badlands—most of them never returned,” a councilwoman informed him. “The few who did make it back were never the same. They babbled about mountains being moved and the courses of rivers being changed. One of them even raved about flying men who set the sky on fire.”

El Malpaís is a sinister place,” the councilwoman concluded and the other members of the committee nodded in agreement. “Do not go there.”

Oskar glanced at Tatcho who motioned for him to answer the Council.

“Thank you for permission to pass through your lands,” said Oskar.

“And your advice,” Tatcho added and nudged Oskar.

“And for your advice,” the boy said.

The pair nodded to the men and women of the Council of Nations, picked up Diego in the sage and headed back to the Rio Grande for the night.

El Malpaís

Into EL Malpias

The next morning Tatcho, Oskar, and Diego climbed to the top of a nearby mesa and surveyed the landscape to the west.

“That,” said Tatcho pointing to a distant mountain peak highlighted by the rising sun, “is Lookout Mountain and that,” he said sweeping his hand over the dark expanse of lava to the south, “is El Malpaís. You’re going to avoid The Badlands—right?”

Oskar nodded.

“I can’t go with you on your vision quest but I think it’s alright for Diego to accompany you as far as the base of the mountain.”

“Keep this boy away from the badlands,” the old man urged Diego.” You hear me lobo loco?”

“I’ve got it,” said the wolf.

“I’ll wait at the river camp for both of you to return.”

El Malpaís

The promise was broken and advice ignored at a fork in the trail to Lookout Mountain. The main trail led straight to the foot of the mountain and a southbound path disappeared into the labyrinth of El Malpaís.

Without the slightest hesitation, Oskar veered to the south.

El lobo ran around the boy and cut him off.

“Not even!”  he barked. “You heard what Tatcho and the Council said.”

“Do you want to hear my argument?” Oskar asked.

“Do I have a choice?”


El lobo mexicano sat down in the middle of the trail and cocked his ears forward.

“I don’t want to go to Lookout Mountain for my vision quest. From up there I will be looking down on the world. From the heights all you can see is the surface of things.”

The boy pointed down the path into the lava beds.

“In Los Tubos de Tiempo I might be able to travel through time and see beneath the surface. I might see why things are the way they are and maybe even the way they are going to be! Think about that, Diego! Who gets a chance to do that?”

“Oskar, might I remind you that Tatcho said the legend of Los Tubos de Tiempo is only a theory.”

“But a theory is proven by experimentation. Maybe I can conduct the experiment and fulfill my vision quest at the same time. That would be something wouldn’t it, Diego?”

Oskar eyes were burning bright with a fire the wolf had seen many times before. But more than once the boy’s curiosity had gotten them into trouble.

“What can I say to stop you?” el lobo pleaded, already knowing the answer.


The boy stepped around el lobo and continued down the path to the maze of lava fields.

The wolf shook his head in resignation and followed his amigo.

The trekkers established their base camp deep in El Malpaís on a hill overlooking the entrances of the lava tubes. The pair spent the evening speculating about the nature of time tubes and making torches of pine pitch for Oskar’s first underground adventure in the morning.


Episode 2: El Calderon

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Copyright © 2016 by Richard D. Vogel

Permission to copy granted

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i Their exploits are recounted in “The Adventures of Oskar and Diego—An Odyssey in the American Southwest”.

ii El Malpais is Spanish meaning "The Badlands".