creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

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.  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. 

This move marked the beginning of our rather nomadic―not to mention quixotic―life together, made possible primarily by the facts that we lived modestly 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.

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 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 writers conference in Las Cruces.  We certainly knew, from the newspaper and television, that summer in the New Mexico desert, Las Cruces’s location, began in May and ended in October, with daytime temperatures exceeding 100 degrees for weeks on end.  In any event, we felt we were prepared for the climate and the relentlessly barren landscape.

With a real estate agent, we looked at a number of houses in Las Cruces. 

Then we checked out a dwelling north of Las Cruces that stood beside the Rio Grande in the town of Radium Springs.  Despite the allure of the famous river, we rejected the house.  We imagined its property keening with clouds of mosquitoes in the summer, and Linda disliked the grimness of the town’s name. 

Next, the agent drove us in the opposite direction to little unincorporated Anthony, New Mexico, 20 miles south of Las Cruces and bordering the incorporated town of Anthony, Texas.

We weren’t prepared for what I 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, 20 miles south of the Anthonys, during the writers conference.  The twin communities were located in the Mesilla Valley, which ran roughly from Radium Springs south to far west Texas as it cradled the Rio Grande.  To the east and west, they were bordered by the Chihuahuan Desert.  Their heart, however, was 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; agriculture; aging houses and warehouses; north-south, single-track, and active railroad line; and canals and ditches―a fascinating oasis in an unforgiving desert.

Then there was the Anthony, New Mexico, house for sale.  The single-story structure stood by a quiet rural road that served a scattering of houses amid a landscape dominated by farming.  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, obviously, protection against the elements.  Pine vigas supported its ceiling and roof.  A little portalof 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: an ideal nook for reading and writing.  The agent stressed that the house was kept perfectly comfortable during the long, hot summer by evaporative 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 landscaping phenomenon Linda and I had never before seen.  The agent 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 agent concluded this explanation by informing us that the 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―this being the desert―lengthy 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. 

Then, my imagination kicked in.  Forget the artesian wells that supplied my native New Jersey town.  I couldn’t avoid being tingled by the fact that water that had traveled some 600 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 many 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 championed 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 1960’s 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 operating 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 Anthony house was accepted, our house in Albuquerque sold, and we made plans to move to southern New Mexico that May.

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Pure Southwest: Death Valley

After eight years in the Southwest, I finally paid a visit to Death Valley, specifically Death Valley National Park, which straddled the California-Nevada border east of the Sierra Nevada.  Death Valley was certainly the Southwest in terms of climate.  However, it wasn’t the classic Southwest of New Mexico and Arizona, lacking as it did a robust Latino and Indigenous population; in fact, lacking barely any permanent population. 

During a week in January, after a non-stop drive of 13 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 liked 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 was synonymous with iconic black-and-white photography.  Meanwhile, never had I been so aware of, and grateful for, the thundering blue of the Valley’s relentlessly empty sky. 

Other than the athel pines―grand, shaggy, surprisingly robust amid such furious aridity―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 the 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 was some 6,300 feet above the Valley floor.  Gazing at the Valley and all its raw, grim contents, and knowing its floor averaged 250 feet 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 unexpected 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 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 the tent.

The following day, I headed south in my truck.  I explored on foot the lifeless clefts of stone that drain, no doubt with a frequency that bored even the ages, the Black Mountains.  “You would do well to avoid that range uncomforted by singing floods,” observed Mary Austin in The Land of Little Rain.  “You will find it forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God.”  

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 the nadir of Death Valley, it was a malpais 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 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.”  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 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 15 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: a cold blade, yet still razor sharp.  In a mere two months, while much of America was still shoveling snow, this place would be approaching 90 degrees.  Later, in my truck at Death Valley Junction, beneath yet another empty sky, I bid farewell to the Valley of Death.

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

“Santa Fe is Always Santa Fe”

Immediately after graduation, I sought work as an English instructor.  I applied at a half-dozen 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 the eye. 

Prior to teaching at the college, I had always enjoyed the occasional visit to Santa Fe, that little city at the foot of the darkly-cloaked southern Rockies.  I was stirred by the city’s antiquity: at some 400 years, the oldest non-Native city in the United States.   In the winter and spring, the city 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, sitting beneath the portal of the ancient Palace of the Governors, the mysterious, timeless Indians from the nearby pueblos offered their handcrafted jewelry and pottery for sale.  On the opposite side, Woolworth’s peddled its foodincluding 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, 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.  Santa Fe also permitted another style, one that dated from the mid-19th century: Spanish territorial revival.

At the time of my arrival in New Mexico, long-time Santa Feans, especially those of modest means, were complaining of being taxed out of their homes by―surprise!―an invasion of wealthy Californians, queen among them actress and New Age guru Shirley MacLaine.  However, I was frankly too fascinated by The City Different to give this much attention.

The community college, at the time pleasantly aloof on the southern 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 graded anonymously on a pass/fail basis by a team of instructors.  Unlike the university, however, the classes had more “non-traditional” students―that is, working people 30 and older―and, this being northern New Mexico, a greater percentage 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 such an 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 transcriptsjust as I once had.  I was also certain 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 17th century.  Indeed, the hallways, walkways, and parking lots of the college were rife with spoken Spanish. 

However, whether a student was pursuing an education in a trade such as woodworking, plumbing, electrical installation and repair, 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 pasta and The Godfather motion pictures with an instructor of Italian; argued good-naturedly with an oddball veteran English instructor who maintained Across the River and Into the Treesa critical flopwas Hemingway’s finest novel; and playfully badgered a physics professor for a detailed explanation as to why and how the universe is infinite. 

Meanwhile, it was with immense curiosity that I watched the periodic entrada of a mid-50’s, very dark-complected Latina instructor.  Slender, regal, mysterious, frequently dressed all in black―including a mid-calf-length skirt―she’d strut in ankle boots into the common area, looking at and speaking to no one, seat herself at an empty table, and prepare for class―Spanish?  She reminded me of Jo Van Fleet’s proud and powerful madam walking the rough-and-tumble streets of Monterey, California, in the motion picture East of Eden.  

A Mexican matriarch out of an unwritten Frank Waters novel.  I never spoke to her.  “Santa Fe is always Santa Fe,” observed Erna Fergusson.

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Thank You, University of New Mexico

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 Vermonter, navigator of a World War II airborne “bomb group,” and Yale graduate.  Delicately accusing me of plagiarism, “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.  However, I held no grudge, for with those few words he had in a way granted me not only literary worth but a sprig of manhood.  (I subsequently withdrew the story for consideration.  Anonymity was my main defense against a boarding school I disliked, and I suddenly realized my story would have revealed too much of me.  Besides, Tom Chaffee’s estimation of my fiction was far more important to me―he rarely gave me better than a “C” in my day-to-day written assignments on the various novels we read in his class―than an appearance in a prep school literary magazine.)

But I cannot honestly extend the line all the way back to these two people, and a few others.  Too much alcohol, marijuana, intellectual laziness, distraction, and loneliness existed between them 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 the place, particularly John Nichols.  That said, my readings of greater and lesser authors; 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; my final exams―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, fundamentally 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, of course, I agreed. 

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.

Strangely, my father opted not to fly out to New Mexico to witness the event, choosing, instead, to go fishing in Maine.  I understood.

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

Writing the Southwest, Part 2: The Subtracted Land

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 15 years earlier was too enjoyable not to repeat in New Mexico, with the added pleasure of writing about it at considerable length. 

I connected with Bobby, an 84-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, once a bull’s-eye in the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.  Its only residents were Bobby and his wife and those of a nearby house.  A post office in Mills served the surrounding countryside.  Mills is little different today. 

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, New Mexico.  (“Of course, all that is missing is a neighboring town named Rogers,” I thought . . . slyly.)  The “King of Western Swing,” Bob Wills, once cut hair in Roy.  Compared to Mills, Roy was a bustling population center, although still tiny, with the prairie, in Kerouac’s words, “brooding at the end of each little street.”  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 three-tenths deduction in that buy-American country) and wearing my cowboy boots from my days of hitting the Denver country-and-western bars and nightclubs with Linda, I was the cowpuncher of my childhood fantasies―and, I conceded, Ed Abbey’s despised “instant redneck.” 

I thought, too, of movies.  I was Paul Newman in the “modern-day western” 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. (“You see, I don’t trust happiness.  I never did.  I never will.”)

In another corner of my imagination, I was Brooklyn’s Truman Capote (minus the cigarette held delicately aloft between two fingers) when, decades earlier, he arrived “out there” in western Kansas to investigate a multiple murder.  Six years later, that investigation resulted in a favorite book of mine, In Cold Blood, which dazzled the literary world, made Capote rich, and began his 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 cutting a more decolored figure―say, 19th-century prairie wanderer, intellectual, and health-seeker Josiah Gregg or 20th-century nature writer and northeastern Colorado native 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.  And yet a little-known land that, because little-known, abhorred the unknown, the stranger.  There were no strangers out there.  The space forbade it.

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.  

As N. Scott Momaday observed of his plains-dwelling Native American ancestors, “The Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind” in the forests. 

A land where you naturally exchanged waves with the rare passing motorist: a subtracted land tended to add to the heart.  A land where heights were few―the windmill, the grain elevator, the Siberian elm, the Baptist steeple, the Baptist―and acrophobia was bored.  A land where you felt utterly safe: Capote’s killers notwithstanding, who was there to hurt you?  And where would he or she possibly hide if he or she did hurt you? 

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 echoed 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 into a wooden shed not far from his house.  While he proudly demonstrated his rusted “walkin’ wheat drill,” an antique, 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 spreading or iron filings rising to our magnet.  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 thickness and solidity of the shed’s wood floor. 

We then got into Bobby’s pickup and drove to a nearby pasture, where some 20 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. 

The longer I lived in New Mexico, the more I’d become infuriated when encountering cattle and their evidence on the public-land deserts of the Southwest: their fresh, abundant manure stinking and smothering; their hooves disturbing delicate soils; their urine fouling what meager natural water sources existed on the landscape; their thorough destruction of areas surrounding the occasional shade tree.  Yet now in my cowboy mode, grateful for Bobby’s hospitality, 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 droppings 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 captive bolt pistol―or certainly judgement on Bobby. 

We then drove to Bobby’s pride and joy, some ten miles southwest of his house: Mills Canyon of the Canadian River.  The canyon was only 600 feet deep and about a mile wide, but amid the horizontal imperative of the surrounding plains, it was striking.  After we arrived at the canyon floor via a dirt road, I estimated the climb out on foot would take at least an hour, and, at roughly a mile in altitude, would get the heart pumping―a respectable workout for the backpacker/ranch hand.  A relief from the annihilating space just beyond its edges, the canyon filled with ponderosa pine, oak, piñon, and juniper.  The Canadian flowed in its depths with a soothing, dry-season gentleness.  Containing only the ruin of a small sandstone ranch house, the place was deserted, peaceful, and lovely.  Bobby and I unspokenly knew that the canyon presented the same anchor, mystery, and inspiration of a mountain―only an inverted one.

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 the couple’s life in that remote plains settlement still had an aura of the 1950’s of my grandparents.    

The following year, my thesis completed, I made a broad sweep of northeastern New Mexico in my truck, passing through the scant plains towns of Nara Visa, Amistad, Sedan, Sofia, Gladstone, and Abbott, and the plains “city” of Clayton, New Mexico, 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 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.  Then I had a Sunday dinner with Bobby, Peggy, and several of their ranching friends.

I composed my master’s thesis on the word processor of an IBM personal computer, which I had now owned for some five years.  The final draft of my thesis, printed on my dot matrix device, 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.  Today, my thesis, along with thousands of others with nearly identical bindings, rests in the basement of UNM’s Zimmerman Library, accessible to all, likely read by none.  I completed my requirements for my degree by taking a seminar in metaphor, somewhat leaden if not for of its bubbly instructor.