Tolerance was not on any maps. According to rumor, it was little more than a speck of a town located in a narrow valley southwest of Acoma. “Urban lore,” townsfolk were quick to say when asked if Tolerance was real. It didn’t matter what people said, though. No words were going to diminish John Miner’s passion for finding it.
“Don’t go wasting your time,” Keith Tanner advised his friend over burgers and beers at the Dancing Eagle Casino. “I’ve never seen Tolerance, nor has anyone else. It’s just an old Indian legend, John.”
Miner paused to take in the words of his friend. Tanner should know; he was a member of the Acoma Pueblo, a tribe dating back 1200 years. The tribe’s dominion had once extended to over five million acres of land before being reduced by centuries of fighting with the Spaniards, settlers, and other Indian nations.
“Why would I stay in this shithole if the legends were true?” Tanner asked.
“Because you’re lazy.”
“Say that again, and I’ll scalp you,” Tanner responded with mock deliberation before breaking out in a laugh.
“Nothing’s going to stop you, John. For God’s sake be careful out there. Between the snakes, scorpions, and desert heat, it’s easy for a man to get in trouble.”
“I appreciate the concern,” Miner reassured him with a smile before reaching for his wallet to cover the check. “This one’s on me, but when I come back with proof, dinner and drinks are on you my friend.”
“Deal!” Tanner said, as he stretched out his hand to consummate the bet.
Miner shaded his eyes as they walked from the perpetual darkness of the casino into the mid-day glare of a hot New Mexico sun.
“I’ll send you a postcard from Tolerance.” Miner promised as he enveloped Tanner in a bear hug.
“You do that,” Tanner responded before heading for his car.
Miner climbed into his 1988 Wrangler. It was showing its age: rust had eaten through sections of sheet-metal, and where there wasn’t rust, there were dents. The exhaust was held in place with baling wire. At least the tires still had tread, and the engine fired up without a miss. Despite its flaws, John loved the vehicle too much to part with it.
He knew that he was going off road, far off road, and prayed that his adventure would not prove to be a fool’s errand. Based on his reckoning, which he fabricated from bits and pieces of conjecture, Tolerance was tucked away in a valley located at the base of two mesas. The Land of Enchantment was filled with mesas. What separated these two was their proximity: at a distance, they appeared to be one.
Miner believed his best shot was to take U.S. Highway 117…which passed within ten to twelve miles north of the elusive town, if his assumptions were correct. It would be tough country to traverse. The Wrangler might get him close, but at some point he’d have to hoof it.
He glanced at his pack, all fifty pounds of it, including three gallons of water. Ten years ago, the weight wouldn’t have fazed him, but now, with his fiftieth birthday on the horizon, the prospect of lugging dead weight for miles in the desert was daunting. Dying of thirst was an even less appealing prospect, and a real possibility if he got lost in this heat.
Miner reached under the passenger seat and pulled out a holstered Smith & Wesson .357 magnum. The sun glinted off the six inch chrome barrel as he wrapped his fingers around the rosewood grip. It felt good in his hand…heavy…reassuring. He had loaded it that morning. The first bullet contained a snake round – a sort of mini shotgun shell guaranteed to decimate any provocative rattlers. The remaining five shots were hollow points in the event that he ran into an unhappy javelina. They were ill-tempered critters that peppered these parts and a real risk after dusk. He set the gun down next to his pack, lowered his Oakley sunglasses from their perch atop his head, and dropped the Jeep in gear. With a quick spin of the tires, he left the gravel parking lot with a trail of dust tight on his heels.
He headed north on Indian Service Route 38, eventually picking up Interstate 40 West. It was a short ride on the highway that paralleled old Route 66, before exiting onto State Highway 117 South. Within a few miles, Miner was alone on the two-lane blacktop.
He turned on the radio in search of any AM station still within reach. Through the static, he could make out the words of Witchy Woman, as they faded in and out with the undulating topography. As though moving in rhythm to the song, the needle on the gas gauge bobbed back and forth between empty and a half-tank. He wasn’t concerned. Like the rest of the vehicle, it was just showing its age. John had topped off the tank before leaving. Plus, he carried a five- gallon reserve tank bolted to the back bumper, just in case.
Miner carefully surveyed the land that lay ahead of him. He slowed on several occasions to study rock plateaus, but none fit the bill. He continued southward.
As he approached Cebolita Canyon, a mesa seemed to arise from nowhere. He hit the brakes, bringing the Wrangler to an abrupt stop. Was there a split in the mesa, he wondered. No, surely it was nothing more than wishful thinking coupled with a mirage brought about by the desert’s heat. Still, he reached into his pack and pulled out his Nikon binoculars. He adjusted them until the mesa popped into focus. Then he dropped his hand to his side as his mouth fell open.
It wasn’t a single rock plateau. What remained indistinguishable to the naked eye became clear with magnification. There was a fine blue line separating the two mesas. But getting there was another matter. No roads led in that direction, and for good reason. The land was unforgiving, and no one in their right mind would find a need to traverse it.
Miner put the Jeep in four-wheel low and began his slow pursuit of the distant mesas. The vehicle creaked and groaned as he crested small rises then sank into rock-filled depressions. Leery of breaking an axle and tired of being jostled up and down, Miner turned off the ignition. He did a quick 360 review of his surroundings while threading the gun holster through his belt, then grabbed his pack.
He didn’t need to worry about anyone stealing the Wrangler. No one would want it. Someone might strip it though…thinking it was abandoned. It was a risk he’d have to take.
“Damn it’s hot,” he muttered to himself as he lumbered under the weight of his backpack. His destination looked to be eight to ten miles as the crow flies. Between the rocks, cactus, and brush, it was going to be a slow trek. It was now three o’clock, which meant he had about five hours of daylight left. After that, it would cool off and the snakes would emerge from their refuge under the rocks. He didn’t want to be out in that shit.
An hour into the hike, Miner was parched…his mouth dry as cotton. His shirt was soaked through with perspiration. He pulled out his water bottle. He had allocated a pint of water for each mile of the hike, and though he’d tried to sip it, it was gone in an instant while his thirst remained. He could drink a little bit more, he thought, but he had to pace himself…finding the balance between dehydration and conservation. Out here, it could make a life and death difference.
As Miner plodded forward, his mind wandered from the travails of the hike to what he would find at the trail’s end. He’d first heard the legend of Tolerance when he was little boy.
He’d come home from school in tears, bullied by a kid two years older and much larger. That boy, an Indian, had scoffed at Miner’s pale skin…John being one of a handful of Anglos in the reservation school.
“I know Billy’s words hurt you, but you need to understand that they reveal a great deal about him and very little about you,” his mother said, wiping away the tears spilling onto his cheeks.
“I don’t understand,” John responded, his voice quivering.”
“Your father and I knew we were running a risk when we put you in an Indian school, but we felt there would be important lessons for you to learn…lessons you would miss out on at an all-white school.”
“Like how to get beaten up by a sixth grader?”
“No, Honey, that’s the last thing we wanted to have happen. Sometimes there are unintended consequences to our actions.”
“What does that mean?”
“That means that, even when you are trying to do good, sometimes bad things happen.”
“What were you trying to do that is good?”
“Your father and I wanted you to learn that not everyone is like you, and that you have much to gain by spending time with people who are different.”
“Maybe you can explain that to Billy, Mom, before he socks me again.”
“I’ll have a word with his teacher,” Becky Miner promised as she wrapped her arms around her son and pulled him tight.
“How about a story? I’ve got a mystery that I think you might enjoy.”
“Sure, Mom,” he said, as he let go of injured feelings and pressed his head against his mother’s chest. “Is it a true story?”
“I’ll leave that up to you to decide. You see, Johnny, there’s a town not far from here, but no one I know has every laid eyes on.”
“Because it’s hidden. It lies in a valley surrounded by desert. There are no roads connecting it to the rest of the world. And there are snakes, and scorpions, and javelina that keep people away.”
John’s eyes grew wide, and he nodded as an image took shape in his mind.
“The town is made up of people of all different colors…brown and black, white and yellow, red.”
“Not all colors, I guess,” his mother smiled.
“How did they get there?”
“No one knows for sure. You see, once people enter Tolerance, they never leave.”
“Why not?” the boy asked.
“Because it’s like finding heaven on earth. Everyone gets along. They don’t see each other as being different.”
“But they are different!” Johnny exclaimed.
“People look beyond their skin. They look into each other’s hearts. And, in Tolerance, everyone has the same heart.”
“So no one gets punched?”
“No, Honey, no one gets punched.”
“Can we move to Tolerance?”
Becky stifled a chuckle. “Maybe someday, but you are going to have to find it first!”
“I’ll find it for us, Mommy…just as soon as I’m big enough!” Johnny swelled with bravado.
Miner missed his mother. She had died a little more than a year ago following a long bout with cancer. If only he could have shown her Tolerance before she died, he thought.
A long line of sweat ran from Miner’s hairline down his forehead and into his eyes, momentarily blurring the landscape and bringing him back to reality. He’d put another mile behind him, and it was time for a second pint of water. He pulled a bottle from his backpack, and with it, his hat. “Should have done that an hour ago,” he thought as he draped the safari hat over the crown of his head and bringing instant relief from the sun’s penetrating rays.
“Maybe Tanner was right,” he said to himself. Tolerance has always been nothing more than a fable –the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” But he’d come too far and prepared too long, to turn around. He couldn’t relinquish the dream – not yet.
Time slowed to a crawl as Miner trudged on. The gap between the two mesas was now visible without the aid of binoculars. Miner thought he saw the faint outline of houses in the valley. He dismissed it as a mirage. The heat did funny things to a man’s mind. Enough of it, and you started seeing what you wanted to see.
Another hour passed, and with it two and half more miles. It was approaching six o’clock, and the heat was finally beginning to break. Miner checked his watch, and then glanced at the pedometer clipped to his belt. Shouldn’t be much further, he thought before giving himself permission to take a fifteen minute break. He lifted the pack off his shoulders and set it carefully on the ground. He stripped off his shirt, rung out as much perspiration as he could, then buttoned it up. After tightening his boots, he was ready to march on.
As he topped a short rise, Miner was confronted with something he hadn’t anticipated – a small canyon, not on any map. It was a divide – separating him from his final destination. There was no trail, nor switchbacks to guide him through the canyon… just walls steep enough to discourage even the most intrepid hiker. But not John.
He paused long enough to cinch the straps tight on his pack to prevent any lateral movement that could precipitate a fall, then began the descent. Forty harrowing minutes later, he was at the bottom looking up.
If the climb down was intimidating, the climb up appeared to be all-the-more treacherous. He started to scrabble his way upward. After gaining only twenty-five or thirty vertical feet, Miner realized he would not make it to the top…not with his pack in tow. The choice was simple: Dump the pack or turn around. He knew the risk he would be taking by leaving his water and gear behind.
He carefully slipped the left strap of his backpack off his shoulder; then the right. Relinquishing his grip, he let the pack tumble to the bottom, bouncing off the canyon wall during its short descent. Miner began to pray.
It took more than an hour to reach the top of the canyon. As he hoisted himself up over the last ledge of rock, he was once again on level ground.
Ahead was the indisputable outline of a town. From what he could see, it was built on a circular grid with stone paths bisecting it. He approached with caution. No one was visible – not a soul.
Dripping wet with perspiration and parched, Miner struggled to shout, but there was no response. He shouted again, but still He heard no response.
Miner nearly jumped out of skin when someone tap him on the back. Pivoting on his right foot, he turned swiftly – his hand reaching for the holster.
A man no more than five feet tall was facing him with an outreached hand. His skin was golden…radiantly golden.
“Give me the gun,” He heard the words, not as sounds but as thoughts.
“Please give me the gun, John…there’s no need for it here.”
“I must have died back in the canyon,” Miner thought. “Fallen from that damn cliff.”
“You are every bit as alive as I am,” the man communicated, his lips never moving.”
“I’m not sure I find that very reassuring,” Miner told the man, who was now gesturing towards the holster.
“Sure, what the hell, you can have my gun. I’ve got a feeling you could take it without being so polite,” Miner thought as he unbuckled the strap on his holster, extracted the .357 magnum and handed it to the man.
“Everyone here is given the chance to do the right thing, including you.”
“How can you speak directly to my mind?” Miner thought in response.
“It’s more efficient, and there are fewer opportunities for misunderstandings,” came the response.
Minor shook his head as if trying to dispel a dream. “Where am I?”
“The place that you have been searching for.”
“And where is that?”
“You have that answer as well. You call it Tolerance.”
“And what do you call it?”
“We have no need for names, but Tolerance is descriptive.”
“Of what? Where the hell is everyone?”
“They are waiting for me to let them know it is safe.”
“Safe from what?” Miner demanded.
“From you, of course.”
“What makes me dangerous?”
“The same thing that gives you promise.”
“I’m not getting your point, and I’m thirsty and tired.”
The man gestured for Miner to turn around. As he did, Miner saw a small table with a large pitcher of ice water and a glass.
The man nodded, as if giving Miner permission. Miner filled a cup, slammed it down, then filled it again.
“We each carry a truth embedded within our hearts. That truth can be a shackle that binds us – a shame that clings to us as tightly as our shadow; or it can be the key to our liberation. If we look upon each other’s truths with equanimity and compassion, seeing our shared humanity rather than our differences, then we are free. If, instead, we choose judgment and segregation, our souls remain imprisoned.”
“The truth will set you free,’ is that what you are saying?” Miner asked, a note of sarcasm creeping into his question.
“Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But in answer to your question, yes, truth and tolerance will set you free.
You’ve been on this quest a very long time, John. Do you remember when it began?”
“After I got my butt kicked at school. My mother told me a story about a town called Tolerance.”
“You didn’t know if it was real, though. Like now, you had your doubts.”
“Who wouldn’t? I live in a world where hate and intolerance are in abundance.”
“But you’ve never surrendered to such feelings. You’ve followed a different path, as your friend, Tanner, would attest to.”
“How do you know that?”
A door of one of the nearby houses opened slowly, and John turned to see who was about to emerge.”
Tanner moved quickly to cover the distance separating them, then grabbed Miner in a bear hug.
“What are you doing here? How did you follow me all the way from the casino?”
“I’ve always been here – and there. It’s hard to explain, John…maybe it would be better not to ask quite yet.”
“But you’ve been my friend for forty years. How could you have been here all of that time?”
“Your mind has to be able to accept duality. That’s going to take a little getting used to. What’s important is that I was the one chosen to bring you here. You had some work to do first, just as we all do before we’re allowed to enter Tolerance. But you did it, you graduated, and now you are among us.”
John watched as the doors of the surrounding houses opened, and all manner of people began migrating towards him. As they approached, he felt an overwhelming sense of love and acceptance. With it came a peace that he had never before experienced…a peace in which every concern, every fear was washed away.
“You know you can’t go back,” Tanner said to him.
“Go back to what? Other than you, buddy, I have nothing to go back to…not since my mother passed.”
Tanner nodded in acknowledgement before pointing: “Look, John, someone is coming to greet you.”
A radiant being, a woman bathed in a brilliant light, was moving towards him, her arms outstretched.
“My God,” was all he could say, as his mother wrapped her arms around him, golden tears spilling from her eyes onto his shoulder.
“You died! I was at your bedside!”
“I told you I would always be with you.”
“But how?” he said both in protest and immeasurable joy.
“I have a story to share with you. It’s a true mystery, and I think you might enjoy it…”