Farm Livin’ is the Life for We

In 1997, after nearly a decade in Albuquerque, Linda and I put our house of five years on the market and left the city.  Linda accepted a job as medical director of a newly-created, small, state-funded HIV/AIDS clinic in the southern New Mexico city of Las Cruces.  I hoped to find work in the Las Cruces/El Paso, Texas, area teaching English.  This move marked the beginning of our rather nomadic―not to mention quixotic―life together, made possible primarily by the facts that we were frugal and had chosen early in our marriage to be child-free.  We were a restless couple: Linda restless―and adventurous―in her career, I restless to experience new landscapes in the Southwest.

Linda was barely familiar with southern New Mexico.  As I have recounted, she visited Carrizozo in the chill of the spring and the White Mountains of the Mescalero Apache reservation in the high-elevation cool of the summer, on both occasions just briefly.  I was only slightly better acquainted with the region as a result of several backpacks, my thesis-related explorations, and attendance at a fall writers conference in Las Cruces.  We certainly knew, from the newspaper and television, that summer in the southern New Mexico desert, our destination, effectively began in May and ended in October, with daytime temperatures exceeding 100° F for weeks on end.  In any event, we felt we were prepared for the climate and the relentlessly harsh landscape.

We looked at a number of houses in Las Cruces.  We checked out a dwelling north of Las Cruces that stood beside the Rio Grande in the town of Radium Springs.  We weren’t impressed with the house; we imagined its property keening with clouds of mosquitoes in the summer; and we disliked the grimness of the town’s name; thus, we rejected the place.

Then our realtor drove us in the opposite direction to little unincorporated Anthony, New Mexico, twenty miles south of Las Cruces and bordering the incorporated town of Anthony, Texas.

We weren’t prepared for what I’ll call “the Anthonys.”  Linda was certainly unfamiliar with them, and Anthony, Texas, was merely a forgettable exit sign on I-10 when I briefly investigated El Paso, Texas, twenty miles south, during the writers conference.  The twin communities are located in the Mesilla Valley, which runs roughly from Radium Springs south to far west Texas as it cradles the Rio Grande.  To the east and west, they are bordered by the Chihuahuan Desert.  Their heart, however, is rich agricultural land―fields of cotton, alfalfa, onions, chile, and corn, groves of pecan and peach trees―all irrigated by the river.  To me, the Anthonys were like the bosque of Albuquerque, albeit the bosque on a lavish scale.  I was immediately charmed by them: their storied river; fields and orchards; aging houses and warehouses; north-south, single-track, and active railroad line; and canals and ditches―a fascinating, if considerably impoverished, oasis in an unforgiving desert.

Then there was the Anthony, New Mexico, house for sale.  It charmed both of us.  The single-story structure stood by a quiet rural road that served a scattering of houses amid a landscape dominated by agricultural.  This was yet another New Mexico house in the pueblo revival style.  However, this pueblo revival was close to authentic.  Its exterior walls were of actual adobe brick, albeit brick coated with stucco for added protection against the elements.  Pine vigas supported its ceiling and roof.  A little portal of pine posts, wood planks, and tar paper shaded the house’s west entrance.  Cool, rosy saltillo tile comprised the floors of much of the house.  In the sunken living room, a fireplace―an odd feature, I thought, given the resounding desert outside―was blackened by the smoke of pecan logs, pecan being the most readily available firewood in the area.  I particularly liked the diminutive and somewhat isolate rear room whose window looked out upon the Franklin Mountains to the east: a perfect place for reading and writing.  The house was presumably kept comfortable during the long summer by swamp cooling.

Slender Lombardy poplars lined two sides of the half-acre property.  A large cottonwood tree commanded the front yard.  Deep, tall, and dense stands of various cacti furiously guarded a number of the house’s windows.  Tough, pale, and mostly matted Bermuda grass carpeted the yard.  Bordering nearly the entire property was a subtle grass-lined ditch, a curiosity Linda and I had never before seen.  The realtor explained that a level, donut-like depression surrounded the house; the ditch received flood-irrigation water from the agricultural field that abutted the rear of the property; and, when the water overflowed or was channeled from the ditch, it flooded the donut and thus irrigated the property’s grass, trees, cacti, and shrubs while keeping the house’s foundation perfectly dry.  With a sly smile, the realtor concluded this explanation by informing us that our property could be quenched by occasionally offering the “ditch rider”―the man who managed the irrigation for the adjoining field―“five or ten dollars” on a periodic basis during the summer growing season.  With a few hefts of a shovel, the ditch rider would breach an earthen berm that separated the field from our ditch, the liquid gold would flow toward the house, and the house’s vegetation would flourish―for Linda and me, accustomed to hoses and sprinklers, a whole new concept in maintaining a lawn and garden. 

Forget the artesian wells that supplied my native New Jersey town.  I couldn’t avoid being stirred by the fact that water that had traveled some six hundred miles―witnessing 13,000-foot-high snowfields; a historic Colorado mining town; a canyon of appalling depth; orchards of apples, pears, cherries, plums, and apricots; traffic to a factory manufacturing weapons that could spell the end of humanity; dusty Indian pueblos hundreds of years old; forests of cottonwood, Russian olive, elm, willow, tamarisk; baking desert sands; numerous dams of various sizes and compositions; fields of chile; and anglers fishing for brown trout, bass, and carp―would come to a final rest beneath a delicate raft of newly-cut Bermuda grass at my doorstep.  

Semi-rural living: Linda and I, who had lived in cities and suburbs nearly all of our lives, were smitten with the idea after seeing the Anthony property.  I wish I could claim that the sentiments of such respected figures as Thomas Jefferson, who deified the “yeoman farmer” and extolled country living; Thoreau, who, after surviving the savagery of Maine’s Mount Katahdin, expressed his preference for “partially cultivated country”; and René Dubos, the microbiologist who maintained that “the charm of the countryside has resulted from the ancient management of nature for agricultural purposes” echoed in my mind as I imagined a life in little Anthony, New Mexico.  In truth, however, it was the opening segment of the vapid sixties sitcom Green Acres, about a wealthy and sophisticated Manhattan couple, portrayed by Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor, who move to the country.  The segment included a comical theme song, with its lofty appeals to “farm livin’,” “land spreadin’ out so far and wide,” “chores,” and “fresh air,” and visuals of Albert, still absurdly dressed in his iron business suit, proudly driving a tractor and ineptly pitching hay.  Yes, as surely as Oliver Wendell Douglas, the Albert character, commandeered that tractor, I hoped I would soon be riding the weathered MTD riding mower parked by the worn little shed in the northeast corner of the Anthony property―the mower, we were told, being included with the sale of the property.

Indeed, I would: In the early spring of 1997, our offer on the house was accepted, and we made plans to move in that May.


Death Valley

After eight years in the Southwest I at last paid a visit to Death Valley, specifically Death Valley National Park, which straddles the California-Nevada border east of the Sierra Nevada. 

Is Death Valley, located in the northern Mojave Desert, the Southwest?  I once again go to two of my favorite authorities on the subject.  The “deserts of California are indisputably the Southwest,” observed Erna Fergusson in Our Southwest.  Check. 

Lawrence Clark Powell was in agreement.  When he proclaimed New Mexico and Arizona the “heart” of the Southwest, he did so because they exhibited, in his opinion, three of the Southwest’s classic characteristics: an arid climate and two “abiding” influences: Native American and Latino.  Death Valley is certainly arid: one of the driest―and hottest―places on the planet.[1]  Then, for some one thousand years it has been home to the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, whose tiny reservation is within the national park.  On the other hand, there has never been a known Hispanic settlement in the valley.  However, this was clearly not an obstacle for Powell.  Without reservation, he declared Death Valley the Southwest in his introduction to Ansel Adams’s Photographs of the Southwest.    

So, that’s settled.

During a week in January, after a non-stop drive of thirteen hours and 760 miles, I arrived at the national park’s Sunset Campground at Furnace Creek, headquarters of the park, where I spent several nights. 

No doubt like millions before me, I felt that Death Valley was aptly named.  Never had I witnessed on such a grand scale what many of us like to characterize as “desolation.”  Stones and sand were everywhere.  The predominant tones of the valley were whites, blacks, browns, and grays.  Only the occasional coppers strained for some semblance of chromatic expression.  Perhaps this at least partially explained Ansel Adams’s attraction to the place: he is synonymous with iconic black-and-white photography.  Meanwhile, never had I been so aware of, and grateful for, the thundering blue of the relentlessly empty sky. 

Other than the athel pines―grand, shaggy, and surprisingly robust―of the campground, the valley I witnessed was treeless.  As I drove along Highway 190 through the park, I realized it was the first time I’d seen a lengthy stretch of major road in the rural Southwest not paralleled on either side by fencing of any kind.  This absence of barriers contributed to the land’s feeling of spaciousness, yet it also underscored its profound emptiness: “Why fence?” it seemed to say.  “After all, there’s absolutely nothing here to keep in or out!” 

Over five days, I explored merely a speck of Death Valley and its environs.  On the second day, I loaded all my backpacking gear in the bed of my pickup and drove to Auguereberry Point in the Panamint Mountains, on the west side of the valley.  The point is some 6,300 feet above the valley floor.  Gazing at the valley and all its raw, grim contents, and knowing its floor averages eighty meters below sea level, I couldn’t help imagining Death Valley as one great drain for the bathtub that was the entire intermountain West, the drain’s trap collecting all of the region’s geologic hair, skin slough, dandruff, lint, and dirt.  After discovering and replacing a briefly unnerving flat tire on the truck, I scuttled my plan to camp near the point, snow flurries and unanticipated cold the bases for that decision. 

I returned to Furnace Creek, where I had the flat repaired.  That night, in windy, dusty gloom, I wandered on foot to the Death Valley National Airport, which was experiencing absolutely no activity other than that of a large spotlighted wooden arrow oscillating on a squeaking axel, presumably indicating wind direction to any aircraft above.  I felt like Saint Exupéry at the Port Etienne airport in the western Sahara, preparing for a midnight mail run to “the North.”  Then I returned to my tent, opened my journal, and attempted to render the day’s events into words.  Throughout the night, needles ripped from the athel trees by the howling wind spattered my tent.

The following day, I headed south in my truck.  I explored on foot the lifeless clefts of stone that drained, no doubt with a frequency that bored even the ages, the Black Mountains.  “What had I, a living man, to do with this incorruptible stone?  Perishable as I was, I whose body was to crumble into dust, what place had I in this eternity?”

Then I drove to the edge of the popular Devil’s Golf Course, a flat and furiously rugged landscape of “interbedded salt and water-bearing gravels.”  Surely one of the nadirs of Death Valley, it was a landscape impervious to foot travel of man or beast, so lifeless and repellent I doubted even a starving vulture would deign to soar above it; a patch of ground that challenged the convention that a valley is a place of refuge and refinement.  Yet, it, too, was not without its fascination and strange beauty.

The fourth day, I backpacked in the vicinity of Indian Pass Trail in the Funeral Mountains.  I walked across a many-gullied plain of rocks, sand, and scattered creosote―a Southwestern slug’s idea of “xeriscaping.” In my journal I noted what I had witnessed: Cotton Ball Basin, Tucki Mountain, and the Panamint Range, and peaks named Winters, Nevares, Schwaub, and Pyramid―“all gaunt, wrinkled, starving, and barren.”  Then I wrote: “What is the allure of Death Valley?  Well, the mountains are certainly dramatic.  The space is awesome.  The unrelenting barrenness is striking.  Never has such vast ‘uninhabitedness’ displayed itself before.”  That night, camped on a hillock below Indian Pass upon the most comfortable stones I could find, the darkness was challenged only by the light of the stars and the occasional car in the distance.  Wind moaned around the external frame of my tent, drummed against the tent’s nylon walls.  “Yet,” I wrote, “I like the wind.  It is company, a buffer against the loneliness of the landscape.” 

The following morning, a raven buzzed my tent as I first peered from its entryway.  In this appalling lifelessness, the mere presence of the lone, croaking bird was like an instant Rolling Stones concert.  The creature then alighted a quarter-mile away on the crown of a nearby hill.  I tried to coax it down into my camp with tossed bits of a Fig Newton.  It didn’t take the bait; yet it didn’t leave its post on the hill.  When I walked fifteen paces from the tent to urinate, it flew from the peak, landed, and began to dine on an apple core I had pitched from my campsite the previous afternoon. 

At 8:15 a.m., my camp broken and belongings packed, I headed for my truck.  As I walked, I felt the light of the rising sun: although the blade was cold, it was still razor sharp; in a mere two months, while much of America was still shoveling snow, this place would be approaching ninety degrees.  Later, in my truck at Death Valley Junction, beneath yet another appallingly empty sky, I bid farewell to the Valley of Death.

[1] As I write this on an August day, the temperature in the valley is forecast to reach 116° F, with 11% humidity.


“Santa Fe is Always Santa Fe” – Erna Fergusson, 1941

Immediately after graduation I sought work as an English instructor.  I applied at many institutions in central and northern New Mexico: colleges, community colleges, vocational-technical colleges.  I was eventually hired as an adjunct instructor at Santa Fe Community College.  It was a one-hour drive to the college from Albuquerque, but I didn’t mind the twice-a-week commute: every highway in New Mexico offered a delight to my eye. 

Prior to teaching at the college, I had always enjoyed the occasional visit to Santa Fe, that small city at the foot of the darkly-cloaked southern Rockies.  I was stirred by the city’s antiquity: at some four hundred years, the oldest city in the United States.  In the spring―my favorite season in the Southwest―Santa Fe perched on a dais of golden earth beneath a parfait of blue sky, white peak, and blue-green forest. 

On one side of the city’s famous plaza, beneath the portal of the ancient Palace of the Governors, the mysterious, timeless Indians from the nearby pueblos fascinated me as they offered their handcrafted jewelry and pottery for sale.  On the opposite side, Woolworth’s peddled its food―including the sodium bomb known as the “Frito pie”―soft drinks, personal hygiene products, office supplies, decorations, and gewgaws.  Elsewhere on the plaza, upscale women’s clothing stores offered long, billowy dresses and multi-colored, elaborately stitched cowgirl boots.  Just off the plaza was the historic La Fonda Hotel with its massive honey-hued vigas (once used, we were told, to hang miscreants), fine artwork, dapper concierge, decent Mexican fare in its restaurant, a gift shop with novels by regional writers alive and dead, and cozy passageways to the guests’ rooms.   In the words of Frank Waters: “always . . . the end of the Santa Fe Trail for Anglo visitors.”

I liked the fact that Santa Fe’s lawmakers mandated that the colors of the city’s structures fall within a narrow range of earth tones.  I regarded this as a respectful nod to the region’s original inhabitants and the adobe structures in which they once―and perhaps still―dwelled, and an unspoken acknowledgement of the primacy of the earth beneath the city itself. The city also permitted another style that dated from the mid-nineteenth century: Spanish Territorial Revival.

At the time of my arrival in New Mexico, humble, long-time Santa Feans were complaining, and rightfully so, of being taxed out of their homes by―who else?―an invasion of wealthy Californians, queen among them actress and New Age guru Shirley MacLaine, the longtimers’ primary piñata.  However, I was too enthralled by The City Different to give this serious attention.  Much, I guess, like wealthy Californians.

The community college, at the time pleasantly aloof on the south edge of Santa Fe, was but a dozen years old when I began teaching there.  Its campus had awesome views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north and east, the Ortiz and Sandia Mountains to the south, and the Jemez Mountains to the west.  There was still a dewy freshness to the campus’s attractive classrooms and offices.  

As at UNM, the class text was a collection of non-fiction essays that delineated the various rhetorical approaches to composition; the students were required to write some six essays throughout the semester; and the final exam was submitted anonymously and graded on a pass/fail basis by a team of instructors.  Unlike UNM, however, the classes had more “non-traditional” students―working people thirty and older―and greater percentages of Latinos. 

As at UNM, my first assignment was a brief writing sample.  Upon reading my students’ efforts, I knew I would be facing greater challenges than those at the university.  Until my hiring in Santa Fe, I was unfamiliar with the concept of a “community” college.  I now understood that this institution was popular not only for its affordability, but also, as I and my fellow instructors delicately put it, its “lower entrance bar.”  I was certain many of my students had C’s and D’s on their high school transcripts―just as I once had.  I was certain, as well, that a number of my students faced challenges with English because they grew up in homes in which Spanish was the primary language, Spaniards having been rooted in Santa Fe’s soil since the early seventeenth century.  Indeed, the hallways, walkways, and parking lots of the college were rife with spoken Spanish.  In the end, however, whether a student was pursuing an education in a “trade” such as woodworking, plumbing, or automotive technology, or using the college as an economical stepping stone to a science or humanities degree from a four-year college or university, the primary obstacle was not language, but motivation.   

Teaching was often mentally and physically tiring.  However, I found rejuvenation, camaraderie, and laughs among my fellow adjunct instructors of all subjects as we gathered before and after classes in a large common area.  I shared my love of manicotti and The Godfather motion picture with an instructor of Italian; argued good-naturedly with an oddball veteran English instructor who maintained Across the River and Into the Trees―a critical flop―was Hemingway’s finest novel; and badgered a physics professor for a detailed explanation as to why the universe is infinite.  Meanwhile, I always enjoyed the periodic entrada of a mid-fifties, very dark-skinned Latina instructor.  Regal, mysterious, frequently dressed all in black―including a tight, mid-calf-length skirt―she’d march in ankle boots into the common area, looking at and speaking to no one, and prepare for class―Spanish, I was told.  She reminded me of the darkly-clad, proud, and powerful Jo Van Fleet character approaching her house of ill-repute in the motion picture East of Eden. A Mexican matriarch out of an unwritten Frank Waters novel.  In my imagination, to provide this fascinating woman’s entrance the grand soundtrack it deserved, I drew from my tiny pool of classical music knowledge and chose―naturally, because it was pure Spain―the “Habenera” of Bizet’s Carmen.     


Pomp, Circumstance, and the Woodchuck

I completed my requirements for my master’s degree by taking a seminar in metaphor, which would have been somewhat leaden if not for of its bubbly instructor.  My efforts in class included discussions of the Great Chain of Being and the metaphorical implications of proverbs, the latter including a nod to the original Mickey Mouse Club’s Jimmy Dodd, who regularly performed a brief musical salute to the subject.  Serious stuff, mind you.

I wish I could say I owe any talent I now have as a writer to Mrs. Seery, my second-grade teacher who hugged me before the entire class after I delivered my written re-cap of the class’s visit to the Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, bakery.  Or to Mr. Chaffee, my English “master” at the boarding school.  A Yale graduate; navigator for a World War II bombing squadron in Europe; Vietnam War opponent; erudite; eloquent; witty; a natty dresser―I was in awe of the man, although he rarely gave me anything better than a “C”.  On the other hand, “No boy could have written this,” he said of a short story―a tale of love and death that aspired to Hemingway―I submitted to the school’s literary magazine, of which he was an advisor.  But I did write it, and I later proved to his satisfaction that he was mistaken.  I held no grudge, for with those few words he had in a way conferred upon me not only literary license, but manhood.         

But I cannot honestly extend the line all the way back to Thomas Chaffee and beyond: too much alcohol, marijuana, and intellectual laziness existed between him and my matriculation at UNM.  No, it was the university that was responsible for whatever succeeded in my master’s thesis.  I’m grateful to every one of my professors at UNM.  That said, my readings of Proust, Lessing, Camus, Garcia Márquez, Lawrence, Woolf, Hunter S. Thompson, Sandra Cisneros, Simone Weil, Barbara Tuchman; my limp analyses of Dickens, Graham Greene, and George Lakoff; my discussion of the iconic San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, which, as a non-Catholic, I should never have attempted―all take a back seat to my master’s thesis, the only achievement of which I’m truly proud as a graduate student.

Throughout my time at UNM, forever the solitary reader and writer, I had given virtually no thought to attending the university’s graduation ceremony.  Linda, however, had given it plenty.  She practically insisted that I don gown and mortarboard cum insouciant tassel.  No surprise.  She was, after all, proud of me.  And she did support us throughout my education.  So I agreed.

And then it occurred to me to invite my father to attend the ceremony, to finally proudly witness his son graduating from an institution of higher learning.  My father rarely got angry, so I never forgot the time, over the Christmas holiday at my sister’s house in darkest New Hampshire, when my father―and mother―trained their guns on me and fired.  It began with my sulking refusal to join my family in a game of Scrabble.  The next thing I knew, Mom and Dad trotted out a litany of bitter disappointments with me that they had accumulated over the years, including the fact that, although I graduated from Hobart, I never participated in the college’s graduation ceremony. 

So, although my mother was no longer around―she had been gone a decade―I thought my father would leap at the chance to journey from New Hampshire to witness me receiving a diploma at the UNM football stadium on a June morning.  To my surprise, however, he chose instead to do what he’d been doing for years in June following his retirement: go fishing for a week in the backwoods of Maine with several of his former business associates.  Was my father getting back at me?  Absolutely not.  My father was never small.  Yet I never questioned him about his decision, and he never offered to explain. 

It was a typically sparkling early-summer morning in New Mexico when I graduated.  At 44, I was undoubtedly one of the oldest students to be honored.  A decade earlier I would not have imagined such a moment.  Still, it was strange being decked out in a gown and cap.  I don’t doubt I looked dignified, even “scholarly,” but at times throughout the ceremony I felt like a woodchuck draped in a lace mantilla.


Processing Words

I composed my master’s thesis on the word processor of an IBM personal computer, which I had now owned for some five years.  Since owning several PC’s and a couple of laptops, I’ve never written a letter, article, or formal piece of creative writing with a typewriter, manual or electric.  When I write with a pencil and pen, it is only to enter raw, free-writing notations in my four-by-five-inch wire-bound journals, which I cherish as much as my finished manuscripts. 

Count me among those who love electronic word processing.  Like most writers, my literary mind is always working: I rarely get through a day when I don’t observe something, no matter how mundane, and then, in my head, attempt to render that something in the most fitting words.  Yet I cannot truly weigh the effect of a word, phrase, or sentence until it exits my brain and appears either in graphite or ink on a piece of paper, or in pixels on the screen of a computer.  And then I often tinker with what I’ve written, right down to the word.  Surely the software pioneers of word processing, while not necessarily creative writers themselves, had an intuitive understanding of this tendency. This yearning. This neurosis.  Sure, one can draw a line through an unsatisfying word, phrase, or sentence, a la Hemingway and millions of other scribblers who sweated over paper prior to the nineteen eighties, but the shortcoming remains in view, an annoying distraction.  Word processing banishes the imperfection, or at least sidelines it for reconsideration at a later date.  (I have an ongoing text file I call the “bone pile.”)  As surely as a human being is constantly weighing the most mundane decisions on a minute-by-minute basis, the writer is constantly weighing words.  Electronic word processing thus lends itself well to the obviously dynamic process of literary composition.   

Of course, the potential hazard of this is that the article, short story, or book is never written; the pile of raw clay―that is, the first of many necessary drafts―never makes it to the potter’s wheel or the pedestal, because the writer―and here I refer to the prose writer, not the poet―enthralled by his or her ability to tinker, erase, and replace on the PC or Mac, obsesses for hours over a word, phase, sentence, or paragraph and fails to projectile vomit the commonly recommended daily yield of a thousand or so words, fails to acknowledge that successful writers never get it perfect the first time and that a published book is the product of entire manuscripts drafted multiple times.  (And I’m indebted to John Nichols for this truth.[1]  

The final draft of my master’s thesis, printed on my dot matrix device―at the time, another fabulous innovation―numbered some 29,000 words.  I successfully discussed―as opposed to “defended,” which smacks of an adversarial relationship that did not exist―my manuscript with my thesis advisors: two professors of English and one of American studies.  Today, my thesis, along with thousands of others with identical bindings, rests in the basement of UNM’s Zimmerman Library, accessible to all, likely read by none. 

As I have written, my thesis yielded a piece in a literary journal.  In addition, my profile of Bobby won honorable mention at The Frank Waters Southwest Writing Award for Literary Achievement.  The highlight of that award was attending the awards ceremony on a beautiful fall afternoon at Frank and his gracious wife Barbara’s home in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, just north of Taos and at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  It was a thrill to meet the great, aged Frank Waters, still lucid but now wheelchair-bound and wrapped against the chill in a colorful serape, and stand amid the chattering aspens and upon the soil that so anchored, mystified, and inspired him.  The following summer, Frank died at the age of ninety-two.

[1] Meanwhile, John, who told our class that he wrote by hand all of his first drafts and typed all subsequent drafts of his novels, and who, with typical humor, once dismissed the word processor as the technical equivalent of “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” is now, if videos of him on the Internet are any indication, writing electronically.  The lure is obviously irresistible.


I See by My Outfit – Part 2

I immediately took to Bobby and his wife, Peggy, who, draped in a gentle weariness, also appeared to be in or near her ninth decade.  They were a quiet couple; the long pauses in their speech seemed to echo the vast spaces on the land that surrounded them.  

Before taking me on a tour of his ranch and a special place of his beyond the flatlands, Bobby―shorter and pudgier than I expected a cattleman to be―escorted me to a shed not far from his house.  While he proudly demonstrated his rusted “walkin’ wheat drill,” a single-wheeled, manual device for seed implantation, I couldn’t help but draw attention to what sounded to me like the hum of a large electrical transformer directly beneath the floor upon which we stood.  Bobby, apparently oblivious to the sound until then, explained that I was hearing a mess of rattlesnakes aroused by our presence directly above, and my city blood began to curdle.  As we moved about the shed, the hum beneath seemed to follow our footsteps like a puddle rapidly spreading.  Bobby then told me about the rattlesnake bite his dog once sustained on the nose, how the dog’s face gruesomely ballooned before he managed to recover.  I had read that the venom of the prairie rattlesnake was particularly nasty, so I was now grateful for the imperviousness of the shed’s wood floor. 

We then got into Bobby’s pickup and drove to a nearby pasture, where some twenty bawling Hereford cattle converged upon us.  Bobby kindly asked me to step out and remove a salt block―for the animals’ nourishment―from the truck bed and toss it anywhere.  I did so readily: happy to assist and, for a few seconds, feeling like a real ranch hand.  Bobby then explained how lightning strikes occasionally claimed the lives of his cattle, and I was glad we were well out of New Mexico’s monsoon season. 

Lately I’d been infuriated when encountering cattle and their evidence on the public-land deserts of Utah and New Mexico: their fresh, abundant manure stinking and smothering; their hooves disturbing delicate soils; their urine fouling what meager natural water sources existed on the desert; their thorough destruction of areas surrounding the occasional shade tree.  Yet, now in my cowboy mode, grateful for Bobby’s generosity, in awe of his and Peggy’s sticking it out in Mills during the horrors of the Dust Bowl, and noting the endless, seamless, resilient carpet of grama and bluestem grasses that seemed to disguise if not absorb the shit of Bobby’s cattle, I couldn’t bring myself to pass judgement on these massive, dumb, wall-eyed beasts destined for the “processing plant” and the captive bolt pistol―or certainly judgement on Bobby. 

We then drove to Bobby’s pride and joy five miles southwest of his house: Mills Canyon of the Canadian River.  The canyon is only six hundred feet deep and about a mile wide, but amid the horizontal imperative of the surrounding plains, it is striking.  After we arrived at the canyon floor via a primitive dirt road, I estimated the climb out on foot would take at least an hour, and, at roughly a mile in altitude, it would get the heart pumping―a respectable workout for the backpacker/ranch hand.  In that relentlessly flat land, I―and, I suspected, Bobby―likened the canyon to a mountain, albeit an inverted one, with all of a mountain’s charms, challenges, and mystery.  Its verticality, as well as its abundance of ponderosa pine, oak, piñon, and juniper, was a relief from the annihilating space just beyond its edges.  Meanwhile, the Canadian flowed in its depths with a soothing, dry-season gentleness.  Containing only the ruin of a small sandstone ranch house, the canyon was deserted, peaceful, and lovely. 

I left Bobby and Peggy’s house as hopeful as when I parted with Frank the rockhound, eager to translate the experience into words.  Even though Bobby and Peggy were born around the same time as my parents, my regard for them was more akin to that I kindly felt for my paternal grandparents, perhaps because their life in that remote plains settlement still had an aura of the nineteen fifties of my grandparents.    

The following year, my thesis completed, I made a broad sweep of northeastern New Mexico in my truck, passing through the gossamer plains towns of Nara Visa, Amistad, Sedan, Gladstone, and Abbott, and the “city” of Clayton, population 3,000.  At the region’s restaurants and gas pumps, I felt far more at ease now than during my first venture into this land―more at home, more comfortable in my cowboy boots “out there.”  After all, I now had a pair of friends, an anchor of sorts, on the prairie.  With Bobby’s permission, I camped once again on his spread―revisiting my late-afternoon shadow taller than a windmill, listening to the panicky grass in the winds―and then had a Sunday dinner with Bobby, Peggy, and several of their friends.


I See by My Outfit – Part 1

Meanwhile, I had one more piece to write for my master’s thesis: my overview of eastern New Mexico’s Great Plains and a profile of a plains resident.  My time spent on the shortgrass prairie of Colorado fifteen years earlier was too marvelous not to repeat in New Mexico, with the added pleasure of writing about it at great length. 

I connected with “Bobby,” an eighty-four-year-old semi-retired cattle rancher, with the help of the district ranger of the Kiowa National Grasslands, which surrounded Bobby’s house in the northeastern New Mexico town of Mills.  Mills was effectively a ghost town.  Its only residents were Bobby and his wife and those of a nearby house.  A post office in Mills served the surrounding countryside. 

Before meeting Bobby, I spent several autumn days wandering around Harding County, in which Mills was located.  One night, I stayed in an old hotel in Roy―and a better name for a ranching town I could scarcely imagine.  Although tiny, compared to Mills Roy was a bustling center of habitation and commerce.  Another night, I camped out on the prairie not far from Bobby’s house, where the yawning plains and occasional headland spread and rolled gently west to the surprisingly grand canyon of the Canadian River. 

During this time, I reveled in my fantasies.  In my pickup (a Toyota, so deduct three points in that buy-American country) and wearing my cowboy boots from my days of hitting the Denver country-and-Western nightclubs with Linda, I was the cowpuncher of my childhood fantasies―and, I’ll admit, Ed Abbey’s despised “instant redneck.” 

I thought of movies.  I was Paul Newman in Hud (“the man with the barbed-wire soul”), Kirk Douglas in Lonely are the Brave, and Robert Duvall’s down-and-out country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies

In another corner of my imagination, I was Brooklyn’s Truman Capote (minus the flamboyance) when, decades earlier, he arrived “out there” in western Kansas for a rather run-of-the-mill investigation that, six years later, resulted in a favorite book of mine, In Cold Blood, which dazzled the literary world and commenced Capote’s ruin.  Out there, I even entered the skin of Dick―“Deal me out, baby, I’m a normal”―Hickock, one of In Cold Blood’s crudely handsome, masculine murderers. 

But this was my overripe imagination back then.  Out there today I would prefer to think of myself as 19th century prairie wanderer, intellectual, and health-seeker Josiah Gregg or perhaps 20th century nature writer and eastern Colorado product Hal Borland.

All the while, I made merry in the explosion of space and sky, the weird emptiness, the monolithic sameness.  A land wrapped in sky.  A land of appalling horizontal depth, in which my presence spread unobstructed for miles in all directions, thinning and threatening to dissolve.  A land of the pronghorn, the deerlike creature who found safety in space because hyper vigilant and fleet of foot, the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere.  A land of few heights―the rare cottonwood, grain elevator, windmill, outcropping―and thus the bored batophobia.