With this nascent passion, I repeatedly explored, over the ensuing months, New Mexico’s wildlands. Their variety and breadth astonished me. Beguiling photographs in my Audubon guide of the glowing Chihuahuan Desert in southernmost New Mexico led me to the harsh, fluted Organ Mountains. In southeastern New Mexico, I escaped the heat of August by climbing into the Capitan Mountains, where, in the Lincoln National Forest, I caressed the head of a friendly, free-ranging horse and marveled at spiny cactus leaves big as a catcher’s mitt. One winter night, and a long one it was, I camped atop a bench of the Sacramento Mountains overlooking the Tularosa Valley, listening to the haunting conversations of great horned owls perched along cliff faces. While camped on the Plains of San Agustin, a vast grassland in western New Mexico, I spent an afternoon and evening watching a succession of thunderstorms, compact iron-like curtains descending from the clouds, sweep across the appallingly vacant land. In the Bisti of northwestern New Mexico, a colorless, sterile badland of soil and soft rock, I wandered among crusty hoodoos beneath a full moon fungus-white and blurry behind a cloudy sky.
Not all of my initial expeditions were successful. One February, determined to pitch my tent as close as possible to Mexico, I drove to the ghost town of Cloverdale, in New Mexico’s southwestern “bootheel” region, in the hopes of striking out west into the Coronado National Forest of the Guadalupe Mountains. However, muddy, rutted roads halted my progress, and with disappointment I returned north through the Animas Valley. Just south of the town of Animas, a Border Patrol agent, after undoubtedly noting the apron of mud on the sides of the Lynx, pulled me over. Of course, I complied with the burley Latino’s request to examine the contents of my backpack. He merely glanced at the plastic baggies of granulated white sugar and Countrytime instant lemonade. However, he opened a third baggie and gently wafted the scent of its contents, powdered milk, in the direction of his nose. Then he thanked me and was gone, my brush with the War on Drugs over. My experience in la frontera aborted, I spent the night in a cheap motel in the little desert outpost of Lordsburg, New Mexico.
Meanwhile, day after day, I marveled at all the things that seemed uniquely New Mexican: restaurants, stores, streets, and offices rife with the language of Spain; towers of smoke arising from weeds burning in ditches in March; remote country roads peopled with the faithful walking toward Catholic shrines in the week prior to Easter; that rare desert perfume of moistened dust that briefly occurs with the initial drops of a rain shower; iron jetty jacks gone to rust in dead floodplains beside the Rio Grande; the pastoral charm of Albuquerque’s many irrigation canals and ditches: Rio Grande capillaries bearing the snowmelt of Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness into urban neighborhoods; Freddy Fender lounging beside his tour bus at a Border Patrol Station south of Alamogordo, displaying what the late John Prine might have described as an “illegal smile”; hard-packed desert soil perversely repelling beneficent summer rain; tumbleweeds orbiting clumsily in a powerful dust devil; the arroyo, the Southwest’s mysterious idea of a creek, chronically empty yet refusing to go away.