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, begins in May and ends 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 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; agriculture; 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. 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 added 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.