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First Snow in the Desert

On December nights, I walked with Buddy along the ditches.  The skies were usually clear, and December’s waxing moon, cutting its highest annual arc in the sky and all but unchallenged by artificial light, bathed the valley in a brilliance that revealed the very face of the night. 

One morning several days before Christmas, it began to lightly rain, but soon the rain was accompanied by our neighborhood’s first snowflakes.  Buddy, perhaps new to the phenomenon, stood dumbstruck in the downfall and snapped at the wet flakes as they lazily approached his nose.  The snow briefly accumulated on our lawn before disappearing into the thirsty earth. 

When the storm clouds finally lifted, they revealed snow that had accumulated on the higher elevations of the Franklin Mountains, where it would linger for days.  A mere 5,100 feet in maximum elevation in the New Mexico portion of the range, forever parched and crushed beneath the daily hammer of sunlight throughout the summer and fall, the Franklins now had an almost Alpan grandeur, appeared far loftier than they really were, and the sight gave me a twinge of nostalgia for the Rockies far to the north. 

Very early Christmas morning, while Linda and my in-laws slept, Buddy and I drove in another wet snowfall out to Lanark, another vanished settlement along the Southern Pacific tracks in the desert southwest of Anthony.  There, Buddy flushed out rabbits while I investigated a melancholy string of snow-mantled boxcars on a siding.

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We Have a Visitor

Several days before Thanksgiving my 83-year-old father arrived at the El Paso airport from New Hampshire.  The following day, Linda, Dad, and I visited Juárez.  At the El Paso Convention Center we boarded the “Border Jumper Trolley”―actually a simulated trolley with rubber tires―that inched across the Santa Fe Street International Bridge over the Rio Grande and into the Chihuahuan megalopolis.  We disembarked not far into downtown Juárez with an assurance from the trolley’s PA system―comforting, no doubt, to at least some of the Yankee passengers―that the trolley would return us to the United States on the same day from the same location.  

The section of the city through which we walked with no particular destination in mind was crowded, chaotic, and shabby.  Street and sidewalk construction had created giant holes that were, at least by standards to the north, insufficiently barricaded.  I feared my father, who at this point in his life was walking slowly and unsteadily, would disappear into one of them, becoming a permanent part of Juárez’s municipal water system, a Border legend.  But, to my relief, he remained in view.  I could see he was, as in New Mexico, fascinated by the heavily made up Latinas. 

One morning he joined me at the college.  I introduced him to a number of my students, some of whom commuted from Juárez.  Prior to our arrival at the college, I shared with him some of the phrases I’d grown accustomed to using since teaching in the border city.  Thus, “No hablo Español,” said Dad while smiling and extending his cool, prominently-veined right hand to a student, who gently clasped the hand while returning his smile.  

On a chilly Thanksgiving evening pecan logs burned in our fireplace, producing a vibrant flame but, unlike that of the piñon and juniper that flourished up north, a somewhat bitter smoke.  As the turkey cooked, I slipped a CD Dad had brought with him into the player, and Dad danced with Linda to Errol Garner’s rendition of “Poor Butterfly,” which Dad had lately indicated was his favorite song. 

My father was now mostly deaf and had had little success with hearing aids, although this didn’t frustrate him. In fact, he rarely complained about anything.  Since I had last seen him, he had been diagnosed with a transient ischemic attack, or “mini stroke,” and as a result was easily confused.  He never mentioned the stroke.  For years his favorite outdoor activity was skiing on New Hampshire’s King Hill.  Now, however, my sister and I knew he would never ski again.  Yet, our father, to our surprise―for he had always struck us as someone willing to acknowledge his limitations―continued to talk as if he would. 

During the visit, a discussion of nursing homes occurred, not in regard to my father’s health―my sister and I had never suggested to him that he might be a candidate for “long-term care”―but merely incidental to Linda’s adult-medicine practice prior to moving to Anthony.  Then, my father, who was still living independently, weighed in with a remark that was gaining in frequency with him: he said he would kill himself, preferably by an overdose of his prescription medications or by car-exhaust asphyxiation, before entering a nursing home.  It was not a threat, instead merely a declaration as he calmly sipped his martini and gazed contentedly into the blue and gold flames dancing upon pecan logs. 

Several days after Thanksgiving, we returned Dad to the El Paso airport.  It would be his final visit to the Southwest. 

Likely due to their being thrust into a climate far more arid than New England’s, my father’s legs itched often during his stay, and their skin, now loose and papery with age, bled easily. With Dad’s departure, I stripped and bundled the sheets and mattress cover, both spotted with blood, from his bed.  Proceeding with the bundle to the laundry room, I passed the guest bathroom that now reeked of the fifties, of Mennen Skin Bracer. 

Six years later, Dad passed relatively comfortably into the mystic―”Nothing to get riled about,” he assured my sister hours before his death―at a lovely assisted-living facility he willingly entered in his New Hampshire town.  The facility included a bar, open late-afternoons, stocked by the residents, and tended by various volunteer townspeople.  My father’s weakness was vodka martinis.  Not long after his arrival, the bar had to display a two-drink-maximum sign as my father was frequently requesting thirds, thus prompting his fellow residents to do the same, all of which almost resulted in a mutiny of sorts.  In any event, those chilly New Hampshire afternoons were likely warmed with tales of Old and New Mexico by a certain fellow.     

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Fall in the Mesilla Valley

In the fall, I resumed teaching freshman composition, this time at El Paso Community College, located in a complex of old buildings near the city’s downtown.  Spanish was the dominant language heard in the college’s hallways.  Latinos comprised about 70% of my students, and I suspected English was the second language of nearly all of them.  Thus, this posed an even greater challenge than what I faced teaching in Santa Fe.  Once again, I taught “rhetorical approaches” to composition, using a textbook that demonstrated those approaches.  And, once again, it was a challenge to get my students to discuss on even a rudimentary level the essays they had been assigned.  For whatever reason, the students were better behaved―that is, there was far less talking among them on subjects clearly unrelated to rhetoric while I lectured―than my charges in Santa Fe.  I still dreaded reading a stack of student papers.  Yet the tranquility of the fields, ditches, desert, and mountains beyond the window of my little study, plus the soothing presence of Buddy, curled like a generous loaf of peasant bread at my feet, meant there were far fewer instances of an airborne dictionary.

Meanwhile, fall in the Mesilla Valley meant the golden flowering of broomweed and rabbitbrush, and purple bouquets of asters and slender stalks of wild sunflowers by the roadsides.  In the velvety desert night, our house glowed like a jack-o-lantern. 

Ready for harvesting, the cotton plants were three feet tall, devoid of leaves, brown, crackling, and laden with glowing white bolls like dollops of wet snow.  However, unlike the events in Mose Allison’s Mississippi-set, blues/jazz song “Parchman Farm,” there were no “11-foot sacks” and “12-gauge shotguns” for this harvest.  Instead, John Deere cotton harvesters―massive machines that seemed to my inexperienced eyes comically disproportionate for the simple and delicate task at hand―combed through the crisp fields. The gleaned cotton was then loaded into equally huge wagons and hauled away to where I had no idea, perhaps a gin on the outskirts of El Paso.  Meanwhile, the bolls that had escaped the harvesters and wagons invariably found their way to the valley’s roadsides, where they remained for a spell like snow tossed by a plow after a light early-fall accumulation in anywhere else but the arid Southwest.  

One fall night, Buddy returned from the vicinity of our garbage barrel, his usual self but redolent of skunk.  Neighbors warned us about and prepared us for this, and so we immediately, on the patio, worked five 6-ounce cans of tomato juice into his hide―tomato juice, we were told, being a neutralizer of the sulfur compounds of skunk spray.  (I have since been led to believe this is not true.)  I then joined him in the shower stall where I got a good rinse and he got a thorough oatmeal shampoo.  He emerged from the shower smelling―between the tomatoes, oatmeal, and fundamental canine essence―like a weird rural Southern breakfast.

Never had I so welcomed November, which in the Mesilla Valley meant the beginning of cool days and chilly nights.  With the cotton now harvested, a different variety of John Deere heavy equipment leveled the plants and plowed the fields.  The leaves of the cottonwoods, willows, Lombardy poplars, salt cedar, and pecan tress yellowed. 

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Lost and Found

One day during the second week of September, Buddy didn’t return to our house within a couple hours of his wandering―as he always did.  I simply attributed this to his independence that I so admired.  However, when he had not shown up by noon of the following day, and had thus skipped two meals, I began to worry.  Of course, I recalled the many dead dogs we’d seen along Doña Ana County roads and highways.  Rapidly mounting anticipatory grief began to be coupled with anger at my naiveté.  Then I fired up and directed another kind of anger at my fellow Doña Ana County residents.  I cursed their careless, unlawful, and―as evidenced by all the empty beer cans, liquor bottles, and wine bottles along county thoroughfares―drunken driving. 

However, while I was coming apart, preparing to write Buddy’s obituary in absentia, Linda, still relatively composed and, as always, practical, decided we should gather up a photo of Buddy, some colored highlighters, and push pins, and head to the nearest copy shop to create some lost-dog posters.  A fool’s errand, I thought sadly: In one of the poorest counties in New Mexico, when there are fields to be harvested and children readied for another year of school, who’ll stop and read a sun-faded poster tacked to a tree trunk or telephone pole?  But I glumly went along.  At an El Paso copy shop we ran off fifteen posters, which, owing to Linda’s recollection of her high school Spanish, wisely included the words “perdido” and “recompensa.”  In my truck we paused to tack the posters along the country roads roughly within a mile radius of our house; throughout, Linda periodically called out “Buhhhhhh-deeee!”, a wail into the indifferent fields, woods, and ditches that pierced my heart.  Later that afternoon Linda phoned the classifieds department of the El Paso Times, which was delivered throughout the Mesilla Valley, and dictated a lost-dog announcement.  That night I slept miserably.

The following morning, a Sunday, while I happened to be on our side patio, a dog appeared, limping down our driveway.  He was mud-caked and scraped.  Despite his sluggish arrival, he was panting rapidly.  His penis was oozing pus. 

We immediately phoned a veterinary clinic in Las Cruces, and the on-call veterinarian told us to bring him in right away.  X-rays revealed that Buddy had a torn diaphragm and two pelvic fractures.  Surely he had been struck by a motor vehicle.  We left the clinic while the vet prepared to perform “major surgery.” 

Despite Buddy’s obviously serious injuries, I was hugely relieved and, ignorantly perhaps, hopeful about the surgery.  After all, I told myself, he was still young, and he’d made it to our house from wherever he had been. 

The first thing I did when we arrived home was head out in my truck to take down all of the posters, not for practical reasons, but for the sheer relief, joy, and gratitude.  Never had our section of the valley―the roads, ditches, fields, homes both solid and sadly ramshackle, tractors, farmworkers, children, cats, dogs, blossoming alfalfa, seven-foot-high weeds―looked so lovely.  I savored the removal of every poster, while, with some shame, acknowledging the wisdom, not to mention the simple humanity, of tacking them up in the first place.  I thanked the fair skies that had occurred over the previous three days and the muddy ditch that may have cradled Buddy while, broken and torn, he mustered the strength to return.  Acknowledging once again my own carelessness, I apologized to the desert skies for my blanket condemnation of my neighbors.  Finally, I blessed my rational and compassionate wife.

That evening, we returned to the clinic and saw Buddy: sedated, an IV line in his forepaw, under several layers of warmed blankets, and breathing regularly.  He had survived the surgery, which revealed that his liver and intestines had partially entered his chest cavity through the ruptured diaphragm.  Beholding him, I was so grateful that, if he did not survive the trauma, at least he did not die slowly, in agony, filthy, forgotten, in a ditch, beneath a gathering whirlpool of soaring vultures.  The following morning, remarkably, the veterinarian informed us that Buddy was ready to go home.  I’ve never forgotten that vet and her hands of an angel.

Over the next six weeks, as fall in the Mesilla Valley arrived, Buddy mended.  In the evenings, he reclined at my feet as I sat in the portal.  Never again did I let him out of my sight and voice control, at least not in our developed part of the valley.  In the desert wildlands, I continued to make an exception, for I knew he was safe there.  Once again, in pink and lavender evenings, we sat together at Vevay, on a knoll above the Southern Pacific track.  We watched the lights of El Paso and Juárez blossom in the east.  With the approach of a freight train, I held Buddy firmly by the chest and collar.   Sometimes, obeying the red light of a block signal, a clamorous train came to a halt right beside us, and in so doing seemed to become a black hole into which all the noise of the world, including that of the train itself, was sucked, creating a vast and eerie silence underscored by a mile or more of dark and brooding steel on wheels.  Buddy, meanwhile, attended to every point in space, reveling in the independence of his remarkable senses.

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Observing the Dog Who Came to Stay

That first summer, Buddy was a joy to accompany and observe.  Again, he joined me on my first backpack in the Black Range.  He was often with me in a place called Vevay, a vanished settlement in the desert southwest of Anthony through which ran the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.  There, in 100-degree heat, I’d watch the freight trains while Buddy, unbothered by the flames, bolted after jackrabbits he’d flushed from the mesquite, never catching one.  Patrolling the cotton field behind our house, the hound would accelerate for no apparent reason, sprint twenty yards, stop, leap, and spin―a lean, young canine simply reveling in his canine youth.  He’d pause to grab a stick from the ground, merely to shake it vigorously.  Once, we gave him a foot-long rawhide chew; likely unaccustomed to such a feast, he wandered around our property a good part of a morning with the massive thing clenched in his teeth, apparently unwilling to devour it―the delayed gratification again at work?―but in a tormenting quandary as to where to bury it.  He eventually interred it in the cotton field; who knew if he ever found it again.  Lord of the manor, after breakfast he’d wander across the road and join the farmworkers in the onion field, occasionally making, somewhat to my embarrassment, a solid deposit among them before resuming his wandering.  The workers ignored him.

And wander he did.  Although every night he was either in his outdoor pen or in the house, during the day he’d often disappear for hours at a time, perhaps revisiting the territory, near or far, that eventually led, however circuitously, to our house.  I didn’t mind this, nor, I presumed, did Linda.  In fact, I liked Buddy’s independence, befitting of a “country dog,” I thought.  His independence mirrored mine in this fabulous new place.  Among other things, it reminded me that we were no longer living among the perils of the city.  Foolishly, it never occurred to me that such independence would imperil him.

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Some Lessons of Flood Irrigation

Summer flood irrigation taught us two things.  First, mosquitoes can occur in the desert providing there is enough standing water, which, of course, was the case when the monsoons arrived in Anthony and were coupled with flood irrigation.  Thus, come August, pleasant evenings on our patio and portal were no more as clouds of insects sought blood. 

Second, swamp coolers provide relief only below a certain percentage of relative humidity.  One day in August, I entered the house once again anticipating relief from the heat.  I heard the comforting hum of the swamp cooler’s blower, felt the draft from the registers, yet found that the beads of sweat on my brow and under my nose were failing to disappear.  Meanwhile, my clothing seemed to stubbornly cling to my skin.  Linda began experiencing similar phenomena.  Our swamp cooler in Albuquerque never failed to keep us comfortable, even during central New Mexico’s monsoon season.  Something was causing this new discomfort.  Rightly or wrongly, we figured it was the additional humidity of the flood irrigation, so we replaced the swamp cooling with air-conditioning, absorbed the additional cost in electricity, and felt immediately better.

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The Event of Summer

By the third week of July, the ferocious heat of early summer―dry, crackling, moisture-sucking―eased up, and the “monsoon season” of regular rain showers―some brief and weak, others sustained and powerful―commenced, typically in the form of local, convective thunderstorms. 

The pattern was predictable.  Mornings in the Mesilla Valley consisted of empty skies or, at best, skies fleeced with vague, unthreatening, high-altitude cirrus clouds.  By early afternoon, cumulus congestus clouds, caused by rising columns of warm, moist air from the gulfs of Mexico and California and the eastern Pacific Ocean, began to form over such regional mountains as the Franklins, Organs, Floridas, and the Sierra Juárez.  Brilliantly white, these burgeoning clouds recalled, in their shapes and textures, heaps of mashed potatoes, ballooning mushrooms, and exploding cauliflowers.  As the afternoon progressed, the clouds climbed higher and higher, and their bellies began to darken with raindrops.  When the clouds assumed anvil-shaped heads, the tops of which reaching ten miles above southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Chihuahua, they were fully-developed cumulonimbi, now prepared to release their wet payload. 

Rain in the green world―that is, most of America―is often merely weather; rain in the Chihuahuan Desert was an event.  Iron-gray curtains of rain spread from their mountain cradles and swept slowly across the valley floor, bearing lightning, thunder, and winds that often kicked up―with a queer juxtaposition, it always seemed to me―towering clouds of dust at their feet, dust fleeing for its ethereal life.  As always, the initial drops to hit the ground briefly perfumed the desert air with the unique Southwestern fragrance of moistened dust.  Then, rain, miraculous rain.  Rain was occasionally so heavy that it reduced visibility to a quarter of a mile. 

From our property, I often viewed several storms patrolling various sectors of the vast valley at once, wreaking havoc.  If our house was in the bull’s eye of a storm approaching, say, from the south, the north wall of the house would often be coated with flies presumably seeking shelter. 

Most of the storms that began in the afternoon ended by evening.  Some, however, extended into the night or began in the night, their lightning offering dazzling displays near and far, often in eerie silence.  

In the storms’ wake, the valley filled with the cloying, tarry odor of wet creosote.  At sunrise after a stormy night, Anthony often looked like a summer morning in Connecticut: fogbanks, puddles everywhere, and our lawns, such as they were, greening before our eyes.