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 epiphanic 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. 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 is located. One night, I stayed in an old hotel in Roy, New Mexico―and a better name for a ranching town I could not imagine; the “King of Western Swing,” Bob Wills, once cut hair there. Although tiny, compared to Mills, Roy was a bustling population center. 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 nightclubs with Linda, I was the cowpuncher of my childhood fantasies―and, I admitted, Ed Abbey’s despised “instant redneck.”
I thought 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. 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 for a rather run-of-the-mill investigation; six years or so 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 eastern 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. 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 heights are few―the windmill, the grain elevator, the Siberian elm, the Baptist steeple, the Baptist―and acrophobia is bored.