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Gila

Eager to resume my backpacking, I headed with Buddy to not only a place that promised relief from the desert heat, but a new frontier in my outdoor experience: the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico’s Black Range.  Robert Julyan, author of The Place Names of New Mexico, writes that the relentlessly-forested range is so named because it is “conspicuously dark and foreboding.”  The range, he also notes, has also been called Sierra Diablo or “Devil Range.”  However, we were unfazed by such a reputation: we’d already grappled with the horned man in the red suit plenty of times in the flames of Anthony.

The Black was a two-hour drive from Anthony.  After winding up the steep east slope of Emory Pass, surely one of the Southwest’s loveliest passes, we parked at the pass’s summit, elevation 8,800 feet, on the eastern edge of the range. 

From there we hiked north for several miles along a ridge before making camp just south of the boundary of the 200,000-acre Aldo Leopold Wilderness.  From our campsite, dark with fir liberally draped with the moss known as old man’s beard, we gazed in sylvan coolness east into the glowing Chihuahuan Desert.  The panorama included the Rio Grande, its manmade aneurysm in that stretch of New Mexico known as Caballo Reservoir, and the harsh, naked Caballo Mountains overlooking the reservoir. 

From the start, Buddy was a fine backpacking companion.  At suppertime, before providing him his main meal of Science Diet, I offered him fragments of Milk Bones.  Yet, to my utter surprise, he gulped not a one of them down. With a determined brush of a forepaw and nudge of a nose, he shallowly buried each fragment, obviously for later consumption, beneath soil and pine duff―an apparent demonstration of canine delayed gratification that touched me.  (I could have used such a lesson a quarter-century earlier―when my grandmother left me $5,000.)  That night, curled beside the campfire, he softly growled at imagined―or so I hoped―threats just beyond the surrounding walls of the forest.  The following morning, I broke out some more Milk Bones, and he resumed his fastidious subterranean storage of biscuit fragments.  

After breakfast, I hoisted a day pack with water and snacks, and we continued north, entering the Leopold wilderness area, created in 1980.  It felt good to at last be in the place named after the man, a forester and pioneering ecologist, who in 1924 was instrumental in establishing America’s first “wilderness preserve,” the 574,000-acre Gila Wilderness, of which, I presumed, the Leopold Wilderness was a part.  Several years prior to the preserve’s establishment, it was Aldo Leopold who officially defined the modern American wilderness as “a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.” 

Buddy and I continued up to 10,011-foot Hillsboro Peak.  On the peak, we encountered a fire lookout tower, sheet-metal storage shed, restored log cabin, and porta-potty―all of them obviously Leopold’s “works of man,” which meant we were no longer in official “wilderness.”  There, we met “Fred,” the fire lookout.  Fred, who “turned seventy up here,” informed me that he worked at the lookout from May to August.  He had been working there for four years, and his mother had worked there for nine before him.  He grew up in my new home, Anthony, on land that was once a “desert ranch.”  When not in this national forest, he lived in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, thirty-five miles northeast of the peak.  “Come up again to see me,” he said as we parted.  “And bring some women.  They don’t have to be good-lookin’ anymore.”  

That evening, back at our campsite, a steady rain fell, although Buddy and I remained dry in the two-person tent.  The following morning, after we broke camp, packed, and were about to leave, I realized Buddy hadn’t unearthed a solitary Milk Bone fragment.  I guessed that meant he was counting on us to return.  We never did.

Blow, ye winds of mourning / Blow, ye winds eye-oh / Blow, ye winds of mourning / Blow, blow, blow

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Farmworking

On our arrival in the Mesilla Valley, various crops were being tended and harvested.  One morning, farmworkers descended upon the onion field immediately across the road from our house.  The vehicles that brought them there bore the license plates of New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and even Chihuahua.  Throughout the day, men and women slowly combed through the field.  By day’s end, through a dusty haze, the field was jammed with hundreds of stuffed burlap bags, and the hot air had the faint odor of soupe à l’oignon.  The bagged onions would then find their way to valley plants where, after some minor processing, they would be packed into mesh bags and stored in the shade of huge sheds, awaiting shipment by truck to markets throughout the region, if not the entire United States. 

Two porta-potties stood at the edge of the field being harvested.  In fact, during the onion harvest, porta-potties seemed to be everywhere, beside fields and riding individually on little trailers pulled by pickup trucks scurrying throughout the county.  For this I thanked César Chavez.  

Meanwhile, the cotton continued to grow behind our house, reaching a height of eight inches by the third week of June.  It was then that some 35 farmworkers, each carrying a hoe, entered the field early one morning and, forming a phalanx fifty yards wide, began weeding and breaking up the soil, all the while carefully avoiding the plants.  I couldn’t imagine doing such gingerly work with my size-15 footwear; in fact, I couldn’t imagine doing this kind of work at all.  Elsewhere. swathers were cutting the valley’s alfalfa, and alfalfa fields were being irrigated.  Flooded alfalfa fields attracted snowy egrets stepping delicately through the impounded waters as they quenched their thirst and dined on flushed-out insects.  Closer to the river, pecan orchards, their trees planted with geometric perfection and pruned with equal attention to symmetry, were being copiously flooded, often standing in what could only be described as vast ponds.  It was in one of them that I spotted my first fox in New Mexico. 

Not every farmworker arrived at a field in a motor vehicle.  Once, in the pre-dawn hours, when I couldn’t sleep and was bound in the truck on a country road for a donut shop in west El Paso, a figure on a one-speed bicycle, his hoe recumbent upon the handlebar, emerged from the gloom, obviously headed for a field of one sort or another.  There were likely dozens more of such individuals in the valley.  

The mother ditches―those that fed the smaller ditches that in turn fed the field furrows―were now full nearly to the brim, perhaps four or five feet deep in places, and running swiftly.  Civilization’s detritus that had chanced to collect in their beds and on their slanted banks throughout the dry months of winter and spring was now defenseless before such liquid clutches, and it was now being swept away to who knew where.  One afternoon, so high was the water in a mother ditch as it tunneled beneath O’Hara Road, near our house, that it had trapped a massive raft of Styrofoam, grass, weeds, sticks, plastic bags, flyers, a nude Barbie Doll, a can of oven cleaner, and empty beer, pop, and motor oil bottles. Witnessing the various ingredients of this steeping flotilla, I had to wonder how they would one day play out, if at all, in a Q-tip or a pair of cotton underwear.  

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June in the Desert

June in the desert. 

Albuquerque had accustomed me to temperatures in the hundreds, although not as early as the first week of June, as was the case in Anthony.  By two p.m., when the cottonwood leaves seemed to sparkle as they trembled in a slight breeze, when every point in space was afire, and when the songs and chattering of the swallows, doves, grackles, sparrows, finches, and kingbirds, so prevalent in the morning, were hushed, the mercury held at 106 in the shade, the aridity furiously wicking all moisture.  Then, it seemed only two wild birds continued to make their presence known.  The mockingbirds continued their deranged monologues; indeed, one regularly broadcast from our roof’s TV antenna, which must have been nearly as hot as a branding iron.  And the furtive Gambel’s quail periodically cried in the usual vague distance.

Throughout the day, Buddy, who’d yet to have indoor privileges although always access to shade and water, would follow me around our yard, and I’d study his reaction to the inferno.  At 105 degrees, I estimated he delivered 250 ppm’s, or pants-per-minute.  I determined his tongue extended an additional three-quarters of an inch for every ten degrees above a temperature of 80.  Yet, like the mockingbirds, he managed in the blaze, as did I. 

In fact, I reveled in it, challenged it to deplete me as I worked outdoors, emptying the little storage shed of useless items left by the previous owners; sectioning the trunk of a dead yucca for disposal; uprooting dead ocotillos; and treating our house’s vigas, customarily protruding a foot or two beyond the outside walls, with a mixture of mineral spirits and linseed oil, the parched wood absorbing the liquid as fast as I could pour it.  

At five p.m., quitting time, the temperature was 100, and the day’s cumulative heat covered me like freshly-spread asphalt.  Yet I was still alive, marveling at my body’s cooling systems, feeling cleansed, purged.  With the relatively low humidity (soon to be challenged by the flood irrigation of the surrounding fields and the advent of the summer monsoons), the crackling heat was tolerable.  Of course, my peace of mind was maintained as well by the knowledge that at any point in the day I could retreat to the inside of the house, where an evaporative cooler provided a constant and comfortable temperature of 78 degrees (although the increasing humidity would eventually challenge the cooler’s effectiveness).   

One morning, I engaged a man, an Anglo, who stood at the edge of the cotton field immediately behind our house.  He told me he farmed the field.  Playing dumb―that is, without mentioning the irrigation of our property that apparently regularly occurred with the previous owners of our house―I asked the man if, for compensation, he would be willing to channel some water onto our property when he irrigated his field.  To my surprise, he refused, explaining he needed every drop of his allotment and, further, fearing a lawsuit should his water damage the foundation of our house.  I wasn’t about to challenge the man’s reasoning regarding his need for water, and explaining to him that our house, on its slightly elevated foundation, would be safe from any flood irrigation now struck me as a waste of time.  So I merely smiled and bid the farmer adieu. 

In the days that followed, I had minimal concern about a lush lawn―this was the desert, after all.   Meanwhile, I had faith in the plentitude of the summer rains soon to come.  But then, on a hot afternoon two weeks later, Linda and I returned home from a weekend in Albuquerque to discover that a good deal of our property was flooded.  After splashing barefoot through a couple inches of the broth in our backyard, I came upon a 15-foot-long and one-foot-wide channel that had been dug between the cotton field and the little grassy ditch that marked our property’s edges―for the obvious purpose of quenching our various vegetation.  Where the water had entered our property, there was a fixed raft of hundreds of six-inch-long cotton stems―debris from the previous fall’s harvest.  Meanwhile, to facilitate the movement of floodwater onto our front lawn, someone had scraped a crude channel across our graveled driveway.  I was moved by this obvious, if mysterious, thoughtfulness.  Clearly, there was a second posture in addition to the farmer’s regarding irrigation water in our Anthony neighborhood, and the ditch rider―or perhaps common field worker―responsible for the consideration shown us was either ignorant of or deliberately ignoring the farmer’s position. 

In any case, the event fascinated me, as I thought it would: the wild, icy blood of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains was now warm and rank and covering our property at a standstill, a final resting place.  Within a day, our property had absorbed most of the water.  And in the days that followed, with a twenty-dollar bill at the ready, I took to regularly scanning the cotton field. Memory told me to be on the lookout for a Latino wearing knee-high rubber boots and a straw hat.  Yet I saw no one.

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Buddy

One day, shortly after Linda and I arrived in Anthony, a dog appeared at my side as I stood at our mailbox just down the road from our house.  He followed me home.  He was a cinnamon-colored shepherd-retriever mix who looked to be about a year old and weighing some forty-five pounds.  He had no collar and was not neutered. 

For several days he hung around our property and followed me to and from the mailbox.  I did nothing to encourage his interest in me.  I neither fed nor watered him, although daytime temperatures were in the 100s.  I didn’t so much as touch him.  Meanwhile, he introduced himself to Linda, who, against my unvoiced wishes, provided him with water. 

We soon concluded that he was just one more of the many stray dogs, a depressing number of which were dead on the shoulders of highways and roads, we had seen in Doña Ana County since our arrival.  Whatever, I was simply hoping my neglect of him would make him go away―dissolve back into the ditches, fields, and woods from which he emerged―and never return.  After all, my interests now were tending our new property, the reading of great books, and the writing of my surely soon-to-be underground bestsellers.  It did occur to me that Linda, whose family had raised, bred, and shown Scotties much of her life, might like an addition to our household, but half of that responsibility would be mine, and I had no interest in caring for and giving companionship to a dog.

But I never flat out said this to Linda, so on about day four, as Linda and I stood in our yard with the anonymous mutt once again sitting ever faithfully and calmly between us, she suggested we adopt him. 

I objected.

“Fine!” she said with a sting that suggested anything but.  Then she blindsided me with the following: “Then you take him to the shelter in Las Cruces.”

Me?  Take him?  To a shelter?  By myself?

My mind was suddenly a welter. 

First: Of course, you dope!  You want one less dead or dying dog by the side of a road?  That dead or dying dog that depresses you so much?  It’s simple: You take the stray to a damn shelter!

But then my mind stepped into some darkness: Okay. She’s playing me.  She knows that I know I’ll be the last to see this poor animal delivered to the concrete, chain-link, dankness, cacophony, and―let’s face it, given all the stray dogs around here―the high probability of the euthanizing table of a southern New Mexico animal shelter.  And that I’ll give in!

But only momentarily.    

Of course she doesn’t want to be a part of it―for the very reasons you just enumerated.  Now, do you?  You who love this fabulous new home in the desert, largely made possible by her.  You who loved that blue belton when you were a teenager.  You who now have half an acre of private property and miles of fields and desert.  You who recall that photo of Steinbeck at his typewriter―with a dog at his side. 

Do YOU?  Step outside yourself for just this once.  She would enjoy a dog.  You might, too.

“Let’s keep him,” I said.

Within minutes, he was seated beside me in the truck as we prepared to go to the IGA for several cans of dog food.

Linda beamed at the two of us.

“Let’s call him Buddy!” she said.

“Sure!” I answered with a grin.

Obviously unused to the luxury of motorized travel, Buddy vomited some water en route to the supermarket, but I didn’t care.  I’d almost forgotten how easily dogs let go of things that don’t agree with them.

Soon he was neutered and fully inoculated at an Anthony, New Mexico, clinic.  I cannot recall, but if micro-chipping was available back then, I’m sure he was checked for it and found lacking.  We never posted a “found dog” in any newspaper, and had no second thoughts about that.    

After mere days with him―exploring fields and ditches, watching freight trains in the desert, assessing sunsets from the portal―I was grateful for his company.  Buddy took my mind off things: books I had to read, words I had to produce, a property I had to maintain.  But when I did write, he was always at my side. 

He lived to the age of seventeen, knowing the Southwest as well as I ever did.  Linda and I are now on dog number six.

And the ones delivered from the road, they’re surely the special ones.

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Welcome to the Mesilla Valley

Our first week in Anthony―a week in which New Mexico’s newest country squire noted in his journal that “My wife is greatly entertained by my enthusiasm for our new surroundings.”―I unpacked, looked, listened, and explored.

Pleasantly absent was the urban roar that always filled my ears to one degree or another in Albuquerque.  Only vaguely, and then depending on the wind direction, could I hear the steady rumble of traffic on I-10, some two miles to the east of our house. 

In this relative quiet, I heard new sounds, particularly those of birds.  In the pre-dawn hours began the bubbly chirp of dozens of kingbirds in the green mansion of our cottonwood tree.  I met a new species of dove, plumper than the mourning dove of central New Mexico and possessed of a different call.  Instead of the mourning dove’s “coo-AHHH coo coo coo,” the white-winged dove inquired, from the power lines overlooking our property, “Who cooks for you?”[1]  I heard roosters crowing throughout the day.  And what I originally thought was an elderly lady yelling “Helllllp!” every dawn from a farmhouse a quarter-mile to the northeast, I would soon learn was a peacock. 

One day I went for the first time to the IGA Feria supermarket in Anthony, Texas.  There, for all I knew, I was in Mexico.  I estimated that 98% of its customers were Latino, and a combination of Mexican-American and Mexican. (There had to be Mexicans, legal and illegal, in both Anthonys, I concluded, given their economies and proximity to the border.) The only two customers I heard speaking English were . . . Asian.  The market’s produce section included something I’d never before seen: cactus leaves, sans spines.

Row after row of four-inch-high cotton awaited flood irrigation in the huge field that bordered our backyard. Indeed, I was fascinated by the four-mile-wide greenbelt that humanity, harnessing the Rio Grande, had created through what was once almost entirely desert; how the river, which ran a mile-and-three-quarters west of our house, spread, through a variety of irrigation systems―canals and ditches―to our part of town.  Everywhere there were ditches, some earthen, some concrete, three to four feet deep.  Some were bone dry. Beneath parched skies, water, swiftly moving and lustrous as polished chrome, filled others.  Some of the earthen ditches were falling into crumbling, eroded neglect.  Yet these primitive ditches, no doubt dating back scores of years, were still working.  Their antiquity was stirring, these Roman aqueducts in miniature.

In my pickup, after driving through the Texas towns of Anthony, Vinton, and Canutillo, I entered the city of El Paso for the second time in my life.  The twin cities of El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, are separated by the Rio Grande and cupped between the Franklin Mountains of Texas and the Juárez Mountains of Chihuahua.  Thus, El Paso’s legendary name.

I entered El Paso via Paisano Drive, which, as it skirted the Rio Grande, initially took me through a community named Smeltertown, after an ASARCO copper smelting plant that may have still been in operation―I didn’t know.  In any event, it was a name that surely made industrialists swell with pride and environmentalists cringe.  To the south, meanwhile, rose Juárez, population one million, its many squat, drab buildings covering small hills seemingly bereft of trees.  I saw a man on the Juárez riverbank dipping a five-gallon bucket into the Rio―here simply a trashy, languid stream―in order to painstakingly rinse the dust from his little school bus nearby.

A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire separated Paisano Drive from the Rio Grande.  On the opposite side of the thoroughfare, another chain-link fence, this one crowned with razor wire, blocked access to the tracks―tempting, no doubt, to a hungering undocumented citizen of Mexico―of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s main line. 

Now began the swarm of United States Border Patrol vehicles variously crawling and scurrying everywhere.  When not in motion the vehicles were idling, their cabs comfortably air-conditioned, under metal lean-tos at the river’s edge.  This scene depressed me: Here were armed employees of the United States government darting about with, it seemed to me, the absurd purpose of arresting and deporting people who merely wanted to clean American motel rooms, hoe American onion fields, and pick and sort American chile peppers.  The simplistic view of a liberal new-arrival, perhaps. 

As a railroad fan, I naturally chose to check out El Paso’s downtown railroad station.  It was not fenced.  The station, which witnessed a periodic stream of rumbling freight trains during my visit, was a grand red-brick edifice that included a handsome bell tower.  After leaving the station―which, I was interested to learn, was visited by Amtrak’s Sunset Limited nearly every day of the week―I accompanied the tracks as they headed east, but quickly lost them as they commenced to tunnel through El Paso’s heart.  The tunnel was no doubt constructed to facilitate the city’s north/south flow of car and truck traffic; yet, to me, it was a reminder as well of the clamp―consisting of the rugged Franklin Mountains immediately to the north and the formidable political and psychic wall that is the border with Mexico just to the south―in which the El Paso finds itself. 

Although considerable stretches of El Paso exhibited signs of poverty and decay, compared to dusty, smoky Juárez, El Paso, with its typically American abundance of steel and glass, shone.  And, of course, its overwhelming Latino population made El Paso look and feel far more New Mexican than Texan.   

Up and down the Mesilla Valley, murals―grand, colorful, ambitious, and frequently honoring Mexican history―graced the walls of even the humblest businesses.  At Charlie’s, a little Mexican restaurant in Anthony, Texas, a six- by twenty-foot mural on the dining room wall featured a buff, golden, bare-chested man in a giant headdress―undoubtedly Moctezuma II―reclining on a verdant hillside on the outskirts of a many-templed city.  In his arms swooned a voluptuous woman―undoubtedly one of his wives, concubines, or queens―her full lips about the length of an enchilada from his.  Elsewhere in the mural a jinete, or horseman―the revolutionary Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata?―brandished a rifle.  There were iconic images of El Paso and Juárez, including the Santa Fe Street bridge linking the two cities, and the 40-foot-tall limestone statue of Christ atop Sierra de Cristo Rey in Sunland Park, New Mexico, which borders west El Paso.  On the north wall of the room a smaller mural depicted a humbler scene: the open door of a casa, revealing a cigarillo-smoking hombre reading by lamplight, his hat and dog at his feet. 

Purely commercial art saluting the area’s history was typified by the sign for El Pollo Ranchero, a fast-food restaurant in west El Paso, which depicted a menacing chicken with narrow eyes and―never mind the gender incongruity―a Zapatista mustache.  Wearing a ten-gallon hat, the feisty bird was armed with two holstered six-guns, and both wings were ready to draw.  One law-and-order pollo, all right―about to be plucked, chopped, grilled, and served up hot and spicy in a tortillaDelicioso! 

Meanwhile, in a different cultural vein, a large billboard along I-10, just south of the Anthony exit, advertised an El Paso “gentlemen’s club”―that is, a titty bar―that invited its prospective customers―“gentlemen,” of course―to “FEEL THE POWER!”  No subtlety there. Machismo in full bloom.  This would take some getting used to.       


[1] Since then, the white-winged dove has expanded its territory northward and today is well-established in Albuquerque, if not beyond the city, as well.

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Little Anthony

After spending a night in a Las Cruces motel, we arrived, just ahead of the movers, at our new house in Anthony on a late-May morning.  The movers unloaded the van in light, intermittent showers.  As I directed the movers, inside and outside of the house, I sensed a difference in this new place we now called home: an added weight―of silence, stillness, and, given that Anthony was at an altitude of 3,800 feet, an additional 1,500 feet of room above.  I beheld the surrounding mountains―the Franklins, Potrillos,  Aden Hills: scattered, diminutive, worn, barren.  If the Rockies of Colorado and northern New Mexico were the waves, and the Sandias, Manzanos, and San Andreases of central New Mexico the breakers, then the mountains about Anthony were surely the foam, the spindrift.  Our previous neighborhood, on Albuquerque’s east mesa, not far from the Sandias, had wings.  Anthony had wings, too, albeit the wings of a roadrunner.  Anthony felt mainly afoot.

After the movers left, while Linda napped on a bare mattress amid stacks of boxes, our front doorbell rang.  When I opened the door, I encountered a Latino in his mid-fifties.  He had thick, curly salt-and-pepper hair.  His sparse beard was a week long.  His jeans and buttoned shirt were worn, his running shoes surviving on duct tape.  His scratched, mud-encrusted off-road bicycle leaned against a post of the portal.  His expression was blank, his dark eyes remote.  A sadness seemed to be just below his surface.  I realized where I now was, and thus everything about him seemed to murmur “Mexico.”   

Before I could say anything, he began talking calmly but rapidly in Spanish, oblivious to his words ricocheting off my obvious incomprehension.  As he went on, I summoned what little I recalled from my Spanish classes at UNM, repeatedly interjecting, “No hablo Español.” However, the man, now becoming agitated, continued talking in Spanish.  I concluded that he had spotted the new arrivals in the neighborhood and was looking for an odd job. “Work”! I wondered to myself.  What the hell is Spanish for “work”!  Yet I couldn’t recall.  Eventually, my visitor offered the upheld palm of his right hand, which I took as a request for a handout, and which struck me as an odd shift, given that I thought his original and perfectly honorable expressed desire was for some work in exchange for pay.  Somewhat affronted by this, yet maintaining my composure, I patted the obviously empty pockets of my shorts and, recalling an expression I first learned in Leadville, said firmly, “No dinero.”  With that, my visitor turned, mounted his bicycle, left our property, and headed south on Opitz Road, dissolving into this strange new world.  

The evening that followed was calm, its skies were clear.   As I swept a puddle of water from the patio off the kitchen door, I heard the distant voices, in Spanish, of our new neighbors in our section of Anthony.  Had our house’s previous―and original―occupants not been gringos, I would have felt far more alien here.  Now I relaxed in the desert stillness as I watched a full moon rise over the Franklin Mountains.