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Gila

Eager to resume my backpacking, I headed with Buddy to not only a place that promised relief from the summer 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, revealed that the relentlessly-forested range was so named because it was “conspicuously dark and foreboding.”  In addition, he observed that the range had also been called Sierra Diablo or “Devil Range.”  However, I was unfazed by such a reputation: I’d by now grappled with the horned man in the red union suit in the flames of Anthony.

The Black Range was a two-hour drive from our home.  After winding up the steep east slope of Emory Pass, surely one of the Southwest’s loveliest, Buddy and I parked at the pass’s summit, elevation 8,800 feet and poised on the range’s eastern edge.  From there we hiked north for a stretch before making camp just south of the boundary of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. 

From our campsite, dark with fir generously draped with the moss known as old man’s beard, we gazed in sylvan coolness east into the glowing Chihuahuan Desert far below.  The panorama included the Rio Grande, followed by its artificial aneurysm in that stretch of New Mexico known as Caballo Reservoir, and the harsh, naked Caballo Mountains overlooking the reservoir. 

From the outset, Buddy was a fine backpacking companion.  At suppertime, before providing him his main meal of Science Diet dry, I offered him fragments of Milk Bones.  Yet to my surprise, he gulped not a one of them.  With a determined dig of a forepaw and nudge of a nose, he shallowly buried each fragment, surely 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.  

After breakfast, I hoisted a day pack with water and snacks, and we continued north, entering the 202,000-acre Leopold wilderness area, created in 1980.  It felt good to at last be in the place named after the individual, a forester and pioneering ecologist, who in 1924 was instrumental in establishing America’s first “wilderness preserve,” the 574,000-acre Gila Wilderness, which exploded just to the west of the Leopold Wilderness.  Several years prior to the preserve’s establishment, it was 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 then headed 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 the New Mexico Anthony, on land that was once a “desert ranch.”  When not in this national forest, he lived in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 35 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.”  

Eventually, Hillsboro Peak would become the annual home of fire lookout and fine writer Philip Connors.

That evening, back at our campsite, a steady rain fell, although Buddy and I remained dry in our one-person-and-one-dog 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 returning.  We never did. 

Punctual disintegration.  “The world is easily lost.”

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The June Soil

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, Chihuahua, Colorado, and Texas.  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 then found their way to Valley plants where they were packed into mesh bags and stored in the shelter of huge open-air 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.  The days of squatting in a ditch or behind a tree were evidently over.  For this, I thanked César Chavez.

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 many more of such commuters in the Valley.   

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 50 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.  Of course, I couldn’t imagine doing this kind of work at all. 

Elsewhere, swathers―giant reel mowers―were mowing some of the Valley’s many alfalfa fields.  Other alfalfa fields, meanwhile, 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, the trees often standing in what could only be described as vast ponds.  It was in one of the orchards that I spotted, after all these years, my first fox in New Mexico. 

The mother ditches, those that fed the smaller ditches that in turn fed the field furrows, were now full nearly to the brim, 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 tides, was now being swept away to who knew where.  One afternoon, so high was the water in a mother ditch that the tunnel beneath O’Hara Road 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.  How far would the essence of this boulabosh, some of it obviously toxic, burrow its way into the meat of an onion, pecan, or chile pepper, or into the fiber of a pair of cotton underwear? I wondered.  

  

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Two Positions on Water

One summer morning, I engaged a man who stood at the edge of the cotton field behind our house.  He told me he farmed the field.  Playing dumb―that is, without mentioning the flood 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 watered his field. 

To my surprise, he refused, explaining he needed every drop of his allotment and, further, feared 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 breath.  Thus, I merely smiled and bid the farmer a good day.  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 plenitude 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 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, a crude channel had been scraped across our graveled driveway. 

I was moved by this obvious, if mysterious, generosity.  Clearly, there was a posture alternative 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 sight fascinated me: 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 absorbed most of the water. 

And during the week 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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June in the Desert

June in the desert. 

At 2:00 P.M., as the cottonwood leaves sparkled in a slight breeze and the aridity furiously cancelled all moisture, the mercury reached 106 degrees in the shade.  Birds prevalent in the morning hours―swallows, doves, grackles, sparrows, finches, kingbirds―were hushed, leaving only two making their resilient presence known.  The mockingbirds continued their deranged monologues, one regularly broadcasting from our roof’s TV antenna, which must have been nearly branding-iron hot.  Meanwhile, the furtive Gambel’s quail periodically cried in the usual indeterminant distance.  Like these two, I managed in it.

No, 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, atop a ladder and in the blaze, 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 absorbed the liquid as fast as I could pour it.  

At 5:00 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 increased 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 ability).     

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The Dog Who Came to Stay

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 45 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 100’s.  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―dissolving back into the ditches, abandoned houses, fields, or woods from which he had emerged―and never return.  After all, my interests now were tending to 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 I knew some of that responsibility would certainly be mine, and I had no interest in caring for and giving companionship to a dog.

But I never flat out said any of this to Linda, so on about day four, as she and I stood in our yard with the anonymous mutt, having drunk his fill from a yet another pan of water Linda had offered him, sitting faithfully between us, she suggested we adopt him. 

I objected.

“Fine!” she said with a sting that, to me, 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 angers and disgusts you so much?  It’s simple: You take the stray to a shelter!

But then my mind crawled into dark place: Okay.  She’s playing me.  She knows that I know I’ll be nearly the last to see this poor animal facing concrete, chain-link, dankness, clamor, and―let’s face it, given all the stray dogs around here―the euthanizing table.  And that I’ll give in!

But I backed out of that and took a breath: Of course she doesn’t want to be a part of it, for the very reasons you just imagined.  Now, do you?  You, who love this fabulous new home, largely made possible by her.  You, who now have half an acre of private property, miles of fields and desert, and loads of peace and quiet.  You, who loved that blue belton English setter when you were a kid.  You, who recall that photo of the great 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 food.

Linda beamed at the two of us.

“How about calling him Buddy,” she suggested.

“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.  And I’d forgotten how easily dogs let go of things that don’t agree with them.

We never posted a “found dog” in any newspaper, and had no second thoughts about that. We took Buddy to an Anthony, New Mexico, veterinary clinic.  I cannot recall, but surely the clinic checked him for a micro-chip, found him lacking, and then implanted him with one.  The clinic neutered and fully inoculated him.  Finally, we gave Buddy a collar to which we attached his county license and an identification tag.     

After a few weeks with Buddy―exploring fields and ditches, watching freight trains in the desert, assessing sunsets from the portal―I was deeply grateful for his company.  He 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. 

Two buddies.  

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First Week in La Frontera

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 space above. 

I beheld the immediately-surrounding vertical formations―the Franklin and Potrillo mountains, Mt. Riley, the Aden Hills: scattered, diminutive, barren, and worn.  If the Rockies of Colorado and northern New Mexico were the waves, and the Sandias and Manzanos 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-50’s.  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, becoming increasingly agitated, continued talking in his first language. 

I concluded that he had spotted the new arrivals in the neighborhood and was looking for an odd job.  “Work,” I wondered.  What the hell is Spanish for “work”?  I wanted to politely inform him, “No work.”  Yet I couldn’t recall the Spanish. 

Then my visitor presented 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 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, with no fanfare, turned, mounted his bicycle, left our property, and headed south on Opitz Road, dissolving into this suddenly strange new world.  

The evening that followed was calm, its skies 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 there.  Now I relaxed in the desert stillness as I watched a full moon rise over the Franklin Mountains.



Our first week in Anthony, a week in which Doña Ana County’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 drone―or roar, depending upon my mood―that filled my ears whenever I was outdoors 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 east of our house. 

In this relative quiet, I heard new sounds, particularly those of birds.  In the pre-dawn hours began the bubbly squeaks 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―and somewhat alarmingly―thought was an elderly lady yelling “Helllll-p!” every dawn from a farmhouse a quarter-mile to the northeast, I would soon learn was a merely 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 percent of its customers were Latino, and of those a combination of Mexican-American and Mexican. (There had to be Mexican nationals, legal and illegal, in both Anthonys, I concluded, given the twin towns’ agricultural economies and proximities 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.

In row after row in the huge field that bordered our backyard the cotton was four inches high.  

I was fascinated by the four-mile-wide greenbelt that humanity, harnessing the Rio Grande, had created through what was once almost entirely desert; fascinated 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, a thoroughfare that gave El Paso its legendary name and inspired a fabulous Marty Robbins ballad.

I entered the city 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; in any event, a name that surely made industrialists swell 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 Rio’s edge.  The 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, milk American cows, hoe American onion fields, and pick and sort American chile peppers. 

The simplistic view of a liberal new-arrival. 

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, gleamed.  And I’d seen enough of, say, the Texas Panhandle to the north to know that El Paso’s overwhelming Latino population made the city look and feel far more New Mexican than Texan.   

More days, more impressions.  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―no doubt one of his wives, concubines, or queens―her full lips about the width of a Chubby’s burrito from his.  Elsewhere in the elaborate 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, this take-no-prisoners fowl 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 tortilla.  ¡Buen provecho! 

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” through and through, of course―to “FEEL THE POWER!” 

No subtlety there.  Machismo in full―and weird―bloom.   


[1] Since then, the white-winged dove has expanded its territory northward and today is well-established in Albuquerque as well.