Uncategorized

A Third House, in El Norte

In late May, Linda and I drove to Alamosa to hunt for our third house.  Entering the Valley was, in some respects, like being thrust back into my native Northeast.  It was still spring there: 70 degrees, 25 degrees cooler than Anthony.  There was a generous smear of high clouds above the Valley, creating a filtered light that soothed eyes more accustomed to the striating Chihuahuan Desert light.  And, in Alamosa itself, there was much more greenery than in a desert New Mexico town.

On the east side of the Valley, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rose steeply, climbing to altitudes of 13,000 and 14,000 feet and thus presenting awesome reliefs of 6,000 to 7,000 feet.  They looked almost unscalable.  Their higher elevations were piled with snow, recalling my depressing days of briefly living among the Gore and Williams Fork ranges to the north.  However, now a fundamentally happier person who’d grown weary of the desert fires, I looked at this range with a longing to explore. 

The west side of the Valley was bordered by the more gradually-inclining San Juan range, peaks that ran from 10,000 to 13,000 feet.  

If any of these ranges included private, as opposed to national forest, land, such land appeared to be sparsely populated.

And, on the east side of the Valley, there was a remarkably vast and towering dune field―when we arrived, a national monument, today a national park. 

The heart of the massive Valley was implacably flat.  At times during our visit, in my billed cap and with my head tilting downward, I felt as if I were peering into western Nebraska. 

Mountain snowmelt fed the rios Grande and Conejos.  Canals and ditches drew from these rivers for cattle-growing purposes.  Meanwhile, water pumped from the underground aquifer and distributed with massive center-pivot sprinklers irrigated hundreds of fields developed for crops. 

In the northern reaches of the Valley, however, there are vast stretches of gray desert scrublands. 

Except in the towns and along the rivers, the Valley had few trees. 

Architecturally, Alamosa was almost completely wood, brick, and stone.  Most of its neighborhoods looked as if they could have been imported from Ames, Iowa.  There was just a smattering of pueblo-revival structures.  Beyond the town limits, however, there were a number of much newer pueblo-revival style houses.  We made an offer on one of them, and it was accepted. 

Before leaving Alamosa, Linda directed me to a Mexican restaurant she had discovered on her initial visit.  

Uncategorized

Sub

But there was still another semester at the community college to complete.

And, as it happened, an opportunity to substitute teach.  The head of the college English department informed me that a substitute English instructor was needed for several evenings at the Technological Institute of Ciudad Juárez, and I offered my time. 

I looked forward to the extra money and, more, the experience, however flickering and thin, of “teaching in Mexico.”  

I met with other American instructors―regular instructors at the institute, I presumed―of various subjects at an El Paso shopping center near the border, and we climbed into a van for the ride south. 

Evening traffic on the various bridges connecting Juárez with El Paso was considerably less than that during the daytime, so we entered Mexico with a minimum of delay.  We then hurtled this way and that over the more streamlined avenues of Juárez to reach the institute southeast of downtown El Paso. 

The campus of the 35-year-old institute was spacious and tidy. 

Prior to my first class, I met with a pleasant bi-lingual administrator of the institute, and she led me to a second-floor classroom where I was to substitute.  The room had the familiar drabness of my classrooms at El Paso Community College and UNM.  The mujer introduced me to the students in Spanish. 

The students were generally older than any I’d taught in America.  Many of them were smartly dressed, the men in suits and ties, the women in blouses, skirts, and heels.  I assumed most of them had spent the day working in mid-level or more advanced positions in some of the dozens of maquiladoras―Mexican assembly plants for computers, mobile phones, appliances, auto parts, and medical devicesI’d heard so much about since moving to the borderland. 

I have little recollection of the precise nature of the English my Juárez students were being taught, although it likely had something to do with communicating with English in the business environment.  The administrator told me that many of the students spoke English, although not with great fluency.  If the class was using a textbook, I was not shown it. 

I quickly concluded that my purpose as a substitute was not to delve into the class’s current linguistic focus, but rather to fill the 75 minutes of class time with conversational English about any topic under the desert moon and make the students feel that they were continuing to get their money’s worth.  I encouraged the students to tell me what they did for a living and share the challenges they felt they faced as students of English.  I also prattled on, quite self-consciously, always wondering how clearly I was communicating, about myself and my impressions of the borderland.  As with my older American students, I sensed my Mexican students were all highly motivated.  To a person, they were respectful, and I enjoyed them throughout. 

After class, the drive back to America was even more disorienting, as night had fallen completely over Mexico and the spring winds drove clouds of dust over the feverish streets and neighborhoods of Juárez.

Uncategorized

To the North Southwest

Another winter in Anthony passed, and our nomadic life resumed. 

My wife, disenchanted with work at the private medical practice in Las Cruces, and not looking forward to a third fiery summer in the Mesilla Valley, noticed in a medical journal a job opening for an internal medicine physician in Alamosa, Colorado.  She informed me of the opening.

My antennae quivered.  I’d never forgotten that windy, chilly spring night when I made the car camp in a woodland on La Veta Pass, and gazed westward at the San Luis Valley, in which Alamosa is located.  I liked that arid, remote part of the world immediately. 

After a phone call, Linda flew to Denver, caught a connecting flight, interviewed in Alamosa at a government-funded medical clinic for the indigent, and was offered the job.  With my blessing, she accepted it. 

In Anthony, I researched Alamosa―located in south-central Colorado, 30 miles north of the New Mexico state line―and the San Luis Valley, consulting books, maps, and the internet, to which I was now connected at home and work for the first time. 

In the winter of 1806, the explorer Zebulon Pike―who historian David Lavender characterized as a “natural dupe . . . earnest, ambitious, dutiful, and naive”―and his men, frozen and nearly starving to death, discovered the valley on behalf of the White race of the fledgling United States during their attempt to find the headwaters of the Red River. 

Some eight decades later, Charles Lummis, one of the original promoters of the Southwest―and who is credited with coining the name “Southwest”―beheld Alamosa―and, for the first time in his life, the Rio Grande, which runs through Alamosa―as he tramped from Ohio to Los Angeles. 

My research revealed the following about the modern-day San Luis Valley:

The Valley was over one-and-a-half times the size of Connecticut and had a population of some 48,000. 

In the rain shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west, the central Valley was effectively a desert, although a desert naturally watered by the rios Grande and Conejos, and artificially by a massive underground aquifer―not unlike the arid valleys of Albuquerque and Anthony. 

The Valley stood at an altitude of 7,600 feet, making it the largest alpine valley in the world.  At this altitude, the temperature in the Alamosa rarely reached 90 degrees.  In the winter, the Valley was often bitter cold, but it was a desert-dry cold, and thus far more tolerable than the cold of, say, Buffalo, New York. And if one longed for Colorado’s deep snows, one could find them on the peaks, ridges, and meadows of the surrounding mountains. 

The Valley was farming and ranching country.  Its crops included lettuce, wheat, and potatoes.  Cattle grazed its rangelands.   

The town of San Luis, in the southeastern corner of the Valley, was the oldest continuously-inhabited town in Colorado, settled by Hispanics in 1851.  Hispanic country, indeed:  Latinos comprised 45 percent of Alamosa’s population.  

This demographic suited me.  I’d made Latino friends and acquaintances in my years in New Mexico, and I came to appreciate many aspects of Latino culture beyond simply the food.  “Perhaps because of his love of land,” Erna Fergusson observed in 1941, “his disinclination to leave his native place, and his ability to enrich an austere life with simple pleasures, the Latin seems to have a basic stability which the Nordic in similar situations lacks.”  Of course, at the approach of the new millennium, millions of America’s Latinos were no longer living “austere” lives.  However, Fergusson was correct about my life for over a decade now: It had been anything but “stable.” Still, I certainly didn’t lack for a “love of land” and what I felt were life’s “simple pleasures.”

Then, the fact that the Rio Grande ran through the heart of Alamosa was an added attraction: The river would still be with me, still remain a thread binding me to the Southwest as much as my new Latino neighbors. 

Uncategorized

Nick

One morning three days before Christmas, Linda and Buddy brought home a dog Buddy had discovered cowering beneath some shrubs on the property of Linda’s Methodist church, in the Texas portion of Anthony.  Not much older than a pup, he appeared to weigh about 20 pounds. 

Everything about him suggested his life so far had been a hard one.  His fur was dirty and extremely coarse―I’d have sooner caressed the straws of an old wisk broom―a sign of malnutrition.  His ears were nocked, likely the result of altercations with stray dogs and cats, perhaps stray humans as well.  We determined a red heeler was somewhere beneath the wreckage.  He quailed at the approach of a hand.  We could only imagine what that meant.  Of course, this being the Anthonys, he had no collar. 

We looked at the pathetic thing at our feet.  Then we looked at each other.  I knew Linda didn’t bring him directly home for nothing, or, at this point in our lives together, even for a trip to the shelter in Las Cruces. 

“Merry Christmas?” I said. 

She beamed and we hugged. 

When I gathered up and lifted the wretched fellow, he stiffened in my arms.  I took him to the tub in the laundry room, where we bathed him.  For a name, in keeping with the season and given the state of his ears, I suggested “Nick,” and Linda approved. 

Soon, Nick was gaining a pound a week and his fur was softening. 

Uncategorized

Don Ernesto

Another fall, and I returned to teaching at the community college.  There, I continued to meet some interesting and offbeat instructors. 

One, a fellow instructor of English, boasted he could show me the former house and a couple haunts―a laundromat and chain restaurant―of the novelist Cormac McCarthy.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s, McCarthy was living in El Paso, published but virtually unknown, and writing his masterpiece, 7,000 Different Ways to Describe the Landscape of the Greater Southwest, Including One Mountain of Dead Bodies, a phantasmagoric novel of the adventure, hardship, violence, and depravity of the 19th-century wars of Indian extermination in the border lands.  Today, McCarthy is a highly successful writer living in northern New Mexico, his acclaimed and bestselling novels of the 1990’s and later having been made into such movies as All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and No Country for Old Men.  Today, I greatly admire his work.  At the time I taught in El Paso, however, I’d heard of but had yet to read him, so I had no desire to see where he washed his socks. 

Then there was the philosophy professor―a Latino, no less―who inexplicably insisted, during our bull sessions in the adjunct instructors’ communal “office,” on pronouncing “Don Juan”―in this case, of Carlos Castaneda fame―as “Don JEW-ann.”  

But by far the most interesting instructor I got to know was a man I’ll call Ernesto.  Some four years older than I, Ernesto taught economics.  He was short and had bug eyes, a generous belly of which he was proud, a thick head of hair, and a full, gray Hemingway beard.  Unlike most of the instructors, he always wore a suit and tie.  (Which caused me to recall some advice I received as a new college professor: Never dress like your students.  The bulk of them will not respect you if you do.)  

Ernesto said he was of pure Cuban stock.  Born in Cuba, he and his parents fled the island either just before or during Fidel Castro’s regime.  In America, they found a home in New York State’s Westchester County.  Ernesto was fluent in both the Cuban and Mexican strains of Spanish, pointing out to me that there is a considerable difference between the two.  (And the philosophy instructor’s use of the word “JEW-ann” irked him to no end.) 

He loved much of the music I grew up with, including the Latin music of the Puerto Rican-Americans Joe Cuba and Ray Baretto, and he delighted in translating for me the Spanish, in the form of lyrics or patter, that occurred in the recordings of these two musicians. 

Like many Cuban Americans at the time, Ernesto had a hatred of Castro and the dictator’s Marxist revolution.  Still, as much as Ernesto admired Ronald Reagan, I didn’t get the impression he was a hardcore Republican.  He was, as they say, fiscally conservative but culturally liberal, so I therefore considered him something of a Libertarian or perhaps a “compassionate conservative” to whom presidential aspirant George W. Bush would soon appeal.  He knew I was a life-long Democrat, although never let that interfere with our relationship.

Ernesto never lacked for an opinion.  “What is all this focking fighting about all over the world?” he’d grumble.  “Religion!  That’s what!  But religion doesn’t make me mad.  Poverty makes me mad!  Hunger makes me mad!”  And to me, on the mating game: “You Anglo men like the anorexic Ally McBeal-types.  We Latin men prefer our women full-figured.”

Ernesto attended Columbia University during the institution’s 1968 left-wing student uprising, with which, being a conservative, he had no truck.  Columbia awarded him a master’s degree in economics.  What brought him to El Paso, where he had a charming wife and had raised two successful sons now out of the nest, I never learned.  In addition to teaching at the community college, Ernesto, a determined entrepreneur, ran two modest businesses in Juárez, a pizza parlor and wholesale pantyhose outlet, and another pizza joint just across the border in New Mexico’s Sunland Park.   

To my considerable amusement, Ernesto often demonstrated an earthiness and a great gusta de la vida.  To indicate his distaste with something, he’d draw his open hand through his crotch―always over his cleaned and pressed Christian Dior trousers; he was, after all, careful to avoid overt crudity when expressing his displeasure in this manner.  At a house party, he’d swing, sway, and whirl with his wife, and sometimes mine, to Joe Cuba’s popular sixties Latin boogaloo “Bang Bang.” 

When we’d occasionally lunch together, always at one mom-and-pop El Paso Mexican restaurant or another, Ernesto invariably ordered something called “caldo.”  Arriving in a huge bowl, it appeared to be a watery meat-and-vegetable soup.  No matter the restaurant, the concoction always included, to my great perplexity, a generous bone―for all I knew, a section of bovine metacarpus.  Perhaps the bone was for added flavor.  To me, however, it appeared to be no more than an annoying obstruction or a clever way to pad a meal.  While I sank my teeth into my usual plate of fatty cheese enchiladas smothered in red or green chile, I’d watch Ernesto with equal contentment slurping up this strange, insipid border consommé between bites of a tortilla.  

In mid-December, when classes were over, Ernesto talked me into taking him in my truck into Juárez, in order that he could briefly attend to his businesses.  Never would I have dared to drive a motor vehicle of mine into that city with someone other than him.  

“Don’t look suspicious,” Ernesto advised me after we crawled over the Santa Fe Street International Bridge and into the general chaos that was the Juárez port-of-entry.  “The thought never crossed my mind,” I responded.  “Until now.  So thanks a lot.”  Ernesto merely shrugged.  

Vendors on foot hawked sunglasses, crucifixes of plaster and wood, Mexican pastries, candy, pistachio nuts.  Boys with buckets of water and squee-gees dodged through the crush of traffic as they offered to clean windshields―for a fee, of course.  Pedestrians shuffled into Juárez with plastic bags packed with goods from Payless Shoes and J. C. Penny’s.  Proud, handsome, stiff-legged old Mexican men with trim gray mustaches, colorful snap-button cowboy shirts, and straw cowboy hats ambled north and south. 

At the port, like all drivers entering from the United States, we were required to stop.  In Spanish, Ernesto coolly dealt with the questions and reptilian gaze of the badged and uniformed Mexican funcionario.  He then paid the entry fee―I cannot recall, but it might have been as little as an American quarter―and we proceeded into and through downtown Juárez.  

Driving in Juárez was a challenge, although not necessarily because the city’s motorists often speeded.  When the lines in the streets were not confusing, they were often faded to near invisibility.  At times, they didn’t exist where, in my experience as a motorist, they should have.  The directional signal on Juárez vehicles was an unknown device.  The citizens jaywalked with abandon.  I shuddered when, with a loud thud, a rear wheel of my truck briefly hopped the curb of a protruding concrete median.  After this event, I had fears of changing a flat in this maelstrom while Ernesto risked his life directing traffic, flailing his arms and barking desperately at Juárez motorists in (Mexican) Spanish.  But I gripped the steering wheel and forged ahead while Ernesto enjoyed the scenery, including beggars in wheelchairs and colorful Matachines in long, flowing headdresses celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe. 

Ernesto directed me to a small, unmarked storefront, one he used as a storage facility, near downtown, where we loaded several boxes of pantyhose into the extended cab of my Toyota.  He said he planned to retail them in El Paso.  

From there we returned to downtown Juárez where, at a hole-in-the-wall on a quiet side street, Ernesto sold pizza by the whole pie or slice.  He introduced me to the smiling young man and woman, both residents of Juárez, who were running the place that afternoon.  After some hesitation, I found I could exchange a few friendly words with them in English.  After Ernesto conferred with them at length, he and I sat down and enjoyed two slices each of “Don Ernesto’s” pizza and two large cups of “Pape-see” Cola in crushed ice.  Not New York or paisan New Jersey, but not bad. 

As we ate and watched a young Juárez couple walk in and order, Ernesto, the chef-economist, beamed as he said to me, “These are my people, my 90 percent market niche that the chain pizza parlors”―and by that I presumed he meant the Domino’s, Godfather’s, and Pizza Huts of Juárez―“don’t touch.”  I had no understanding of the economics of that observation, but I sensed in it a necessarily cold business calculation, yet also a deep Latin American pride, solidarity, and respect.  

Walking the block back to my truck, we passed a muchacha, likely a Juárezeña.  Medium height, buxom, rather distant from an “Ally McBeal-type,” she wore a tight skirt and heels, and her multi-colored makeup had been applied with the familiar precision, artistry, and―at least in my opinion as a non-Latin man―overstatement of the urban, young, and up-and-coming Mexican and Mexican-American woman.  Ernesto smiled and nodded respectfully as she passed.  She barely glanced at us, but a smile, albeit a faint one, crossed her face as well. 

Then, “Always remember, Pheel,” whispered Ernesto, “snow on the roof does not necessarily mean no steam in the pipes.” 

“I’ll journal that.”     

On the drive back to the United States, we discussed the trials and tribulations of teaching the young people of El Paso and Juárez (the community college taught a good number of day students from Mexico), many of them the first in their families to receive a college education.  Ernesto loved the challenge far more than I did, reminding me that “respect is everything,” and that it must be mutual between student and instructor.   

Once again, we crept over the International Bridge, surrounded by the swarms in cars and trucks, on motorcycles and scooters.  Seated on the bridge’s concrete walkway precisely at the designated point where the two countries meet, a Styrofoam cup at her side, a young woman, wrapped in a rebozo against the oncoming chill, discreetly suckled her child as she sought donations.  With her diminutive size, dark complexion, and almond eyes, she might have been a Tarahumara Indian from the Barranca de Cobre region of Chihuahua, and thus a good distance from home.  

Amid all of this, Ernesto suddenly waxed philosophical, returned to the basics: “I can’t help it, Pheel.  I’m like Orson Welles: All I’ve ever wanted to do was eat, fart, and fock.”  

Okay.  I had never known this about the legendary American actor, director, and 1970’s TV shill for a middling California wine.  In any event, this might have explained why, a couple of months later, after Ernesto had agreed to join me on a climb of Camel Mountain―I wanted to pry him from the twin border cities, reveal to him the economy of the desert, see if he had at least a little “mountain man” mettle in him―he crapped out on me the night before the event.  

I still loved him. 

Uncategorized

We Gather at the River

If I missed anything about my native Northeast during these years in Denver and the Southwest, it was a regular plunge into an abundance of fresh water.  I’d known great quantities of fresh water throughout the Northeast―in New Jersey, New York State, Massachusetts, even north-northeast into Ontario. 

Of them, my favorite will forever be a glacier-carved lake cradled in the Berkshire Hills of northwestern Connecticut.  Here was my boyhood elixir, water rich with the flavor and aroma of granite, quartz, lilies, sunfish, mussels, white pine root, crayfish, dragonflies, maple leaves, and, to be thorough and honest, this being the old and populous Northeast, gasoline, 6-12, motor oil, beer cans and bottles, Tartan, and sunken wooden rowboats.  But the lake was deep, and nature’s touch always prevailed.

It’s not that New Mexico lacked vast bodies of water.  It was, after all, home to lakes and reservoirs named El Vado, Heron, Cochiti, Elephant Butte, Navajo, Bluewater, Conchas, Fenton, and Storrie.  However, the opportunity to swim, bob, or splash in them had never presented itself.

New Mexico’s rivers and creeks were a somewhat different story.  In the Jemez mountains, I dipped into the icy Rio de Las Vacas, the “River of the Cows.”  In the Black Range, I bathed in the headwaters of the Gila River.  In northern New Mexico’s Porvenir Canyon, I slipped and fell into Hollinger Creek while backpacking.  Maybe it was the time of year, but the flow in each of these watercourses was rather scant, so these freshwater experiences were less than transformative.

Now, however, in Anthony, I had the mighty Rio Grande a mere five-minute drive from my house.            

Our second June in Anthony witnessed eleven consecutive days of temperatures in the low-100’s, coupled with the typical low humidity of early summer.  Some of those days were windy, with the wind-driven heat fit to slice and cauterize the nostrils.  The combination of heat, my pleasant memories of the Connecticut lake, and the possibility that Buddy might be seaworthy turned my thoughts to the nearby river.  So the hound and I headed out.

In Doña Ana County, the Rio ran with few meanders, and its banks were grassy and virtually treeless.  Absent here were the dense, peaceful, and shady bosques of cottonwoods, salt cedar, Russian olive, and willow that bordered the river in central New Mexico. 

Here the river was firmly in the clamp of southern New Mexico agribusiness, which effectively began just south of the Caballo Reservoir dam in the town of Arrey, some 75 airline miles northwest of Anthony.  From Arrey, through the Hatch and Mesilla valleys and into west Texas, the river was bordered by and quenched the thirst of all manner of commercial crops: chile, onions, cotton, corn, pecans, alfalfa, lettuce, cabbage, and oats.  Tapped by myriad canals and ditches, its flow subject to the gates of several New Mexico dams, a stack of national and international agreements and regulations, and the whims of the weather, the Rio Grande through southern New Mexico looked and behaved like a dull canal, its northern curvaceousness, wildness, and relative sloppiness in times of heavy precipitation merely a memory. 

Yet it was still two banks and a bed that would not be erased no matter how it was utilized.  It still had to flow above ground or below in whatever capacity from the mountains of southwest Colorado to the Boca Chica near Brownsville, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico.    

To my delight, the river was swollen and moving at a brisk pace on that hot afternoon as a dust storm with the odor of ripening onions raged. 

I entered the river at a narrow cleft in the bank where the water, some three feet deep, gently eddied.  The water was chillier than I’d anticipated, no doubt because it had recently been ice and snow in the Rockies and, subsequently, impounded in great, cold depths behind Elephant Butte and Cochiti dams.  Yet I eagerly wandered into it, although only up to my neck: Aware that a facility upriver in Las Cruces deposited that city’s treated waste into the river, I wasn’t about to get any water near any orifices above my shoulders. 

The primal―and gently perilous―thrill of the deep and powerful flow was immediate.  I hadn’t known such a sensation since I bobbed and paddled in the Colorado River outside of Moab, Utah, on a fiery July afternoon a decade earlier.  Other than an ocean’s shoreline waves, is there another feeling like it on the planet?  Even if humanity, as in dams, had a considerable hand in the force of this flood, it was still transcendent: the collective plunge of thousands of western mountains and hills to the north; Earth’s very pulse; one example of that great, forever-turning “millwheel,” in Hal Borland’s word, that evaporated ocean water, delivered the moist vapors to the mountains, condensed the vapors into rain and snow, and channeled the rain and snowmelt down canyons and valleys and back to the oceans, to start the remarkable process all over again. 

Not wishing to be borne on the waters to Canutillo, Texas, just downriver, I resisted the current by dog-paddling, but also by planting my feet in the thoroughly sandy riverbed, which created an equally thrilling sensation.  Standing in the river, resisting its current, I stabilized the sand immediately beneath my feet.  The Rio then ate furiously at the surrounding bed, and my feet and the rest of me thus “rose” on two little pedestals of sand.  Then I got creative.  In the shallower water, where the current was nearly as robust, I sat on the bed, drew my knees to my chest, and was soon “hoisted” on a sandy stool.  However, not even this riverbed perch lasted long before the hunger of the current, so I continually planted myself in new places, and cleansed and cooled myself off in the process.  Pure, simple, childlike fun.  Meanwhile, I tried to imagine how many mountains―literally, mountains―of water-driven sand had marched in this manner to the Gulf of Mexico over the eons.

And then, of course, there were the moments when I simply drew up my legs and allowed the Rio to carry me for 20 or so yards.  How often does the Earth provide you with such wondrous transportation?    

As for Buddy, this was likely his first encounter with a broad, deep, moving body of water.  Linda had suspected that he had some retriever in his pedigree, and he perhaps demonstrated this that afternoon.  Watching me in the river, he initially stood on the edge of the bank and whimpered, anxious to join me yet not quite sure what to make of this strange liquid phenomenon.  When he could apparently stand it no longer, he dropped clumsily down the bank and into the water, but then executed a strong, perfect paddle, making his way toward me, occasionally snapping at the bounty for a drink.  (Okay, I had more faith in his constitution than mine.)  Ably resisting the current, he swam to my side in the middle of the river.  I cradled him, expecting him to cease his movements.  However, either out of a sheer desire to explore the river and his natal buoyancy or, more likely, obedience to his survival instinct, he continued to work his legs and paws, so I turned him loose.  

I then stepped and bobbed quickly to the bank, where I grabbed a stick and threw it downriver.  Buddy, still afloat, was on it, watching it as it wafted through the air, pursuing it after it hit the river’s surface.  Finding it after some brief confusion, he snapped it in his jaws, coughed as he clutched it and paddled across the current, and scrambled up onto the bank, where he dropped it.  Curtains of water briefly descended from him, and then water shot in all directions as a vigorous, uninterrupted shake began at his head and ears, traveled through his midsection, and ended at his shimmying butt and tail, a remarkably fluid series of movements unique to most canines and beautiful to behold. 

While he lingered on the bank watching me―he wasn’t stupid; he now knew the muscle of the river and wasn’t going to unnecessarily wear himself out―I grabbed another stick and delivered it over the water.  This time he leapt dramatically from the bank, broke the variously glassy and finely-bubbling river surface with a fan of water, and retrieved it.  Already I sensed he could handle any depth and flow of the Rio, at least as it traveled through Anthony.

In a queer land it was the queerest of afternoons: A hot eastbound river of wind and dust intersecting a chilly, watery flood driving southward, the perfect representation of a parched land eschewing a drink, narrowly perverse but broadly copacetic. 

During the ride home through the yellow world I dried almost completely.  Buddy would take only slightly longer.  At home, I showered quickly.  After all, what could have been more cleansing than the scrub and flush of the Great River? 

That night, pleasantly exhausted, I stripped, crawled between the sheets, and watched a distant lightning show through a north-facing window until sleep arrived.  In the middle of the night, however, a strange sensation awakened me.  I turned on the light, to find myself stretched out on a fine layer of cinnamon-colored river silt.  Too tired to address it, I doused the light and left this thinnest of pedestals to the mercy of my river of dreams.  

Uncategorized

The Pleasures of a Fenced Property

During our second May, we had our entire half-acre property fenced, a simple wire-mesh “field fence” with handsome wooden posts.  There was a swinging double gate for our driveway and a smaller gate at the rear of our property for easy access to the cotton field and equally easy creation of an irrigation trench between the field and our property. 

The fence was mainly constructed for Buddy’s freedom and safety.  Yet I, who had never lived in such a large, fenced-in property, found myself unexpectedly enjoying it for additional reasons.  The fence not only leant our property a sense of security, but also a very pleasant sense of sovereignty, a feeling that our little plot was ours and ours alone.  I now had a palpable sense of why private property is one of America’s most cherished freedoms. 

Meanwhile, the fence seemed to add a third dimension to our property.  No longer had our little acreage length and width, it now had height and, thus, volume.  Sometimes the volume was only four feet deep―the height of the fence.  Other times, however, the volume seemed to reach clear to the sky, incorporate the basement of Anthony’s sky itself. 

Of course, I could always go to well-worn Frost for agreement, but I prefer the following. In his celebration of the humble hole, Arizona Poet Richard Shelton wrote: “But where is the surface of a hole?  I once believed that the surface of a hole is level with the surface of the ground around it.  From observation I have come to realize that this is not true.  The earth has a surface, and the sea has a surface, but a hole has no surface.  A hole has only sides and a bottom from which it extends infinitely upward, like a shaft of light; and as the earth revolves, it moves with great care and precision between the stars.”

Exactemente.

Seated against a fence post, I watched a roadrunner scurry across our lawn and make a winged leap to a post of his choice.  Meanwhile, I’d bobbed happily in my pool of property.

Uncategorized

Musings in La Frontera

In April, I explored nearby―and quite remote―Camel Mountain.  The mountain stood 4,700 feet above sea level.  As the raven flew, its peak was some 3,000 feet from the border with Chihuahua.  The mountain’s vertical relief was 500 feet, and thus the formation was not a particularly challenging climb.  But that was okay.  Testing my fitness was not the purpose of the visit.  I wanted for the first time, in complete anonymity and solitude, to come as close as I could to a Mexican border country unsullied by civilization. 

I’d been to several Mexican border towns large and small: Juárez; Las Palomas, Chihuahua; Naco, Sonora.  Now I wanted to woo the border again, yet deal with no entrance stations, customs buildings, bars, restaurants, bakeries, dental offices, gas stations, tienditas, brothels, pharmacies, telephone poles, concrete “Jersey” barriers, traffic lights.  I wanted a glimpse of undeveloped Mexico, the country’s raw desert, the Mexican wilderness.  And, frankly, I wanted to do it from the safety of the United States.  I knew that the Mexican landscape would hardly look any different from that of its neighbor to the north.  However, I was planning on it feeling different, and me feeling different as I observed it.   

It was a chilly, windy afternoon when Buddy and I drove about a half-mile south of Route 9 on a dirt road toward Camel Mountain.  The mountain was presumably named for the Middle Eastern ungulate, although I saw no obvious physical resemblance.  

Not surprisingly, the desert rangeland at the base of the mountain was a patchwork of bare soil and stunted grasses littered with desiccated cow patties, although I saw no cattle grazing anywhere.  We parked amid yucca quivering in a wind and immediately set out. 

As we climbed, the cold wind stinging my ears, the size of the boulders girding the mountain increased, as did the height of the grasses, evidently safe now from the maws of cattle.  Buddy spotted a mule deer―its presence on this relatively small, isolated, and virtually treeless mountain surprising me―and chased it for a quarter-mile before giving up and returning to my side. 

Soon we were on the little plateau of the peak, where we were met by a shiny piece of electronic equipment no bigger than a stereo receiver.  It was labeled “INS”―as in Immigration and Naturalization Service―“SENSITIVE.”  A five-foot-tall antenna sprouted from the device and an attached solar panel evidently powered it.  It was chained and padlocked to an adjoining rock, but nothing a bolt cutter couldn’t liberate. 

So much for the primitive experience I was anticipating.  Then again, perhaps I should have known.  The presence of this device, surely there to aid in the detection of illegal border activity, should have been as predictable as that “aerostat,” a massive, tethered, unoccupied balloon deployed for a similar purpose high over Deming, New Mexico, to which Frank, my rockhounding friend, introduced me several years earlier. 

Although I wondered if some government technocrat, clamped in headphones in El Paso, was now monitoring Buddy’s ears flapping in the wind or me periodically blowing my runny nose, I was determined not to let the presence of the equipment distract me.  Meanwhile, I knew the sight of my truck might rouse the suspicion of a U.S. Border Patrol agent who happened to be driving by on 9, but I didn’t let that possibility cast a shadow on my outing either. 

Although I had binoculars, I initially gazed south with unaided eyes.  I saw two parallel dirt roads.  Just beyond the farther of the two was a fence, although not one 20 feet high and made of steel, as one might have expected given that I was now in the vicinity of “desperate,” “lawless,” “corrupt” Mexico.  No, it appeared to be the standard barrier of New Mexican cattle-growing country: a mere four-foot-high, four-stranded barbed-wire fence supported by slender and likely rusted metal posts.  In any event, I was certain that beyond this fence was . . . Mexico, so I sat myself beside the “stereo receiver” and began my observations. 

There, in Chihuahua, I saw a cloud of dust issuing likely from a playa.  Spanish for “beach,” it is a common sandy area in the Southwest that is dry except after rains.  The land surrounding it was dotted like a dalmatian with mesquite. 

As I viewed sullen hills and parched, serrated mountain ranges―the Cormac McCarthy country of a number of his novels―I dipped into my pack and consulted my photocopied map of northern Chihuahua―compliments of the University of New Mexico’s Map and Geographic Information Center―in the hopes of identifying some of them. 

I fanned from southeast to southwest, stirred by the mystery and music of their names: Sierra Juárez, Sierra El Presidio, Cerro El Mesudo, Cerro El Volcan, Cerro El Tascate, Cerro El Venado, Cerro La Rosina, Cerro El Aguila―the northernmost crumbs of Mexico’s massive Sierra Madre Oriental, the Eastern Mother Mountains.  According to the map, the formations in my immediate vicinity were not especially tall, ranging in altitude from 4,300 to 4,800 feet, about the height of Camel.  

And I thought: Forget northern Mexico’s tourist magnet Copper Canyon.  If I knew a bilingual Chihuahuan with backpacking experience, I’d pay him or her anything to spend a single windy spring night camping, around a fire of mesquite, on any one of these formations, discussing witches, tomfoolery, the fate of Ambrose Bierce, and buried treasure. 

Buried treasure?  Why not?  If I understood the explanatory symbols on the map, the original of which appeared to have been created and printed in Mexico, there were “mines” due south of me named La Linea, La Pena, La Noria, and El Llanto, and there was a possible “trail” named Alicamiento Aproximado. 

My guts stirred with the romance of it all. 

I was prepared to conclude that what I’d been witnessing was utterly devoid of any human presence or impact, a desolation as great as any I’d witnessed in Death Valley, when I finally raised my binoculars to my eyes.  Through them, I spotted some grazing cattle.  Then, southwest of Tescate Mountain, I saw what appeared to be a ranchito consisting of a couple of colorful roofs―Mexicans love bold, bright colors―and a pickup truck with sunlight glaring on its windshield.  Also to the southwest, I spotted, through a haze of dust, a huge flag barred with green, white, and red, clearly that of the United Mexican States, rippling gracefully in the wind probably in or near the aforementioned Las Palomas. 

But I saw no people in all of this space.  No federales; no policia; no farmers or ranchers; no one preparing to be “illegal aliens”; no “mules”―drug smugglers; and no “coyotes”―people smugglers.  Just dust, bending grasses, and wavering mesquite. 

On the New Mexican side, meanwhile, I saw not a single Border Patrol agent or vehicle, just an occasional vulture and raven riding the updraft on the west side of Camel Mountain.  Where, therefore, was all the human drama―Mexicans smuggling drugs, Mexicans “seeking a better life,” and Border Patrol agents on the lookout for them―in the remote stretches of la frontera that I’d been reading about in the Albuquerque papers since my arrival in the Southwest?  Certainly not here on an April afternoon. 

More likely, I concluded, such drama was in the Rio Grande territory of south Texas, where a regular water supply quenched thirsts―if it did not drown first―and lush woods concealed; and in the Arizona deserts south of the mega-cities of Tucson and Phoenix, where there was just the right balance of remoteness and booming opportunity, providing one could avoid death by heat prostration (a slow, horrible way to die).  And this was fine with me.  If I’d wanted human drama, I would have returned to Paisano Drive in El Paso and viewed the concrete riverbanks, chain-link fences, barbed wire, and an international railroad bridge bookended with doors of dense steel mesh.  

Then Buddy, who’d been seated and gazing with me, lay completely down, put the full weight of his head on my leg, and looked up at me with his dark, glamorous eyes: his way of telling me he was bored with geography, botany, and human struggle, and ready to move. 

So we did.  Buddy briefly chased several rabbits as we descended the north slope of the mountain.  I was tempted to circle the formation and approach the barbed-wire fence.  Would I see matching footprints on both sides of the fence pointing north to a job in a chile field, slaughterhouse, restaurant, or motel room?  Necessary work.  Work Anglos like myself were not willing to do.  Then I wondered what would it feel like to plant at least one foot in mysterious Mexico?  But I continued to my truck instead.  I didn’t want to press my luck, attract la migra and thus mix politics with the land, spoil our afternoon.