So, two years into my graduate school experience, I knew I didn’t want to be a “scholar” and I didn’t want to be a novelist. Yet I still longed to write and read. Then I took a class with Michael Hogan, a professor of rhetoric and writing, in which the students read and discussed the various styles of contemporary non-fiction writers, including Hunter S. Thompson, whom Mike particularly liked (although I did not; I couldn’t get past Thompson’s chronic debauchery) and Richard Selzer, who wrote eloquently about surgery. Mike informed me that I could be awarded a master’s degree in English with a “creative non-fiction” emphasis. So, with his guidance and that of Professor Sandra Lynn, whose class “Writing about Place” I also took, I began working toward this goal.
I had my cherished novels―Deliverance, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, A Farewell to Arms, Black Robe, Wolf Song, Flight from Fiesta―but it was the memoirs, “personal histories,” and essay collections in which land played a central role that I had been increasingly preferring to read. It began with Desert Solitaire. Then I devoured Hal Borland’s many books that focused on his life in New England’s Housatonic River valley, books I especially liked because I had vacationed there as a child. I liked John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, in which he and his dachshund navigate for two weeks in a canoe the Brazos River of Texas, and Gretel Ehrlich’s account of ranching in Wyoming. I loved The Colorado, Frank Waters’s sprawling overview of the Southwest, including his personal adventures throughout it over many years.
Soon I had a plan for a master’s thesis. In the years following my arrival in New Mexico, I had identified―to my satisfaction, if not necessarily that of scientists and geographers―five basic landscapes in the state: the shortgrass prairie in the northeast; the Chihuahuan Desert in the south; the Colorado Plateau country in the northwest; the piñon and juniper forests roughly between the 5,000- and 7,000-foot elevations; and, finally, all that existed above the piñon and juniper woodlands: the high-elevation forests of ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, and spruce. In the interest of space and time, I decided to devote my thesis to three of those landscapes: desert, prairie, and plateau. Each discussion would consist of a brief impression of the land―its physical features, but also its peoples, cultures, flora, and fauna―and a much lengthier profile of an individual who resided on that land. Of course, except for the high-elevation forests, cities of various sizes exist on each of these New Mexico landscapes, but I didn’t care to give much attention to any of them. I wanted to write about the more raw and tranquil lands beyond the cities.
Researching New Mexico’s small towns and their sparsely-developed surroundings was pleasurable. Finding an individual to profile for each of my chosen landscapes was a challenge. At the very least, the individual I had in mind had to feel a connection to the land, the deeper the connection the better. Seeking possible subjects, I reached out to, among other people, the officers of my chapter of the Sierra Club, instructors at the university, and the staff members at the Albuquerque branch of the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service, the latter managing, in addition to the state’s federal forests, much of northeastern New Mexico’s federally-owned shortgrass prairie.
However, the first individual I profiled I met merely by chance. To research the Chihuahuan Desert backcountry, I spent several days in early May backpacking in the Big Florida Mountains of southwestern New Mexico. I took photos and filled my notebook (or, rather, journal) with details about canyons, ridges, peaks, trees, birds, flowers, thunderstorms, and, after five years in New Mexico, my first encounter with a rattlesnake.
Not far from the Big Floridas is Rockhound State Park. Even after five years in the Southwest, I didn’t honestly know who or what a “rockhound” was, so, out of curiosity, I stopped at the park, at the base of the Little Florida Mountains. After covering the modest park’s loop drive, I entered its headquarters, a small trailer, and met “Frank,” one of the park’s rangers. He informed me that the park was devoted to the understanding and appreciation of semi-precious gemstones such as agates and geodes.
Frank looked to be in his late sixties. He wore a tan, short-sleeved shirt, olive-green trousers, and dust-impregnated work boots. He had a Ronald Colman mustache and was deeply and thoroughly tanned―he looked as if he should have been accompanied by embers. He seemed to have a heavy Northeast accent, the first I’d heard in years, which I found intriguing. He was relaxed, loquacious, witty, and wildly enthusiastic about gemstones. I took to him immediately. After conversing with Frank for twenty minutes, I explained to him what brought me to the Chihuahuan Desert. I asked if I could profile him for my master’s thesis, and he consented.
As I had suspected, Frank from the East Coast―up and down it, in fact. Born in coastal Massachusetts, he lived in Maine for a quarter-century, and then worked in Florida. En route to Arizona with his wife to visit friends, he would pass signs on Interstate 10 indicating Rockhound State Park, which piqued his interest. After his wife died, and now retired as a radiologic and lab technician, he returned to southwestern New Mexico and paid his first visit to Rockhound. There, he settled in, camping―that is, sleeping on the seat of his pickup―and prospecting for gemstones at the park and on the surrounding public lands. Soon, he began volunteering at the park, maintaining its campsites and overall landscaping. By the time I met him, he was a park employee, sleeping in a bedroom of the trailer. For three days, two of which were his days off, Frank and I conversed in the trailer, prospected for geodes in a pit southwest of Deming, New Mexico, toured the northern reaches of New Mexico’s “bootheel,” and visited Frank’s pharmacy and favorite bakery just over the border in Palomas, Chihuahua. Throughout this, I filled my notebook and captured our conversations on a portable tape recorder. I left Rockhound confident and eager to begin the formal writing of my thesis. Frank was no mystic, nor much of a philosopher, but his love for the desert was as real as the hardened dust in the creases of the palms of his dusky hands.