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.