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The Wild Earth’s Nobility

In late May, Linda and I drove to the San Luis Valley and Alamosa to hunt for our third house.  Entering the 7,500-foot-high San Luis Valley was, in some respects, like being thrust back into my native Northeast.  It was still spring in the valley: 70°F, twenty-five degrees cooler than Anthony.  There was a generous smear of high clouds above Alamosa, creating a filtered light that soothed eyes more accustomed to the striating Chihuahuan Desert light. 

On the east side of the valley, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rose steeply from the valley floor, 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.  At that time of the year, 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.  The south end of the valley was peppered with individual hills and a large mesa, and included a range called the Piñon Hills.  And there was a remarkably vast and towering dune field―when we arrived, a national monument, today a national park―on the east side of the valley.  At 8,000 square miles, the valley was massive and, for the most part, implacably flat: at times during our visit, in my billed cap and with my head tilting downward, I felt like I was peering into western Nebraska. 

Mountain and valley snowmelt fed streams that ran to the Rio Grande and the Rio Conejos, the valley’s two major rivers.  Canals and ditches drew from these sources for agricultural 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 were vast stretches of gray desert scrublands.  Except in the towns and along the rivers, the valley had few trees. 

Through Alamosa, the Rio Grande, though abundant with spring runoff, ran almost imperceptibly.  As in Albuquerque, it was bordered by stately cottonwoods, but a different specie of the cottonwood: the narrowleaf. 

Architecturally, Alamosa was almost completely wood, brick, and stone.  Yet, beyond the town limits, there were a number of pueblo-revival style houses, and one of them for sale, on a treeless acre of scrub in a new and sparsely populated housing development two miles south of downtown, interested us greatly.  We made an offer, and it was accepted.  Before leaving Alamosa, Linda took me to her newly-discovered Mexican restaurant just beyond the river at the east end of downtown.  Our Southwest saga would now continue in el norte.

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Final Days in the Borderland

But there was still another semester at El Paso Community College to complete. In addition to the usual beginning composition course, I was teaching, of all things, “introduction to film.”  Asked to do this by the English department head, I agreed, even though I had no experience in such instruction.  Shots, scenes, angles, lighting, fades, wipes: the course was as instructive to me as it undoubtedly was to my students.  The class not only included the study of film technique, but also the viewing of films, which occurred in a conference room of the college library with a device that projected videocassettes onto a large screen. 

Throughout my life, I’d enjoyed―too much, perhaps―watching movies.  I cannot count how many times as a child in the 50s and early 60s I watched Godzilla, King Kong, Crime School (starring my favorite delinquents of those years, the Dead End Kids), The Thing from Another World, Preston Foster in The Last Days of Pompeii, and other films presented by Million Dollar Movie, WOR Television’s program broadcast from New York City on weekday evenings.  The program always opened with music that never failed to stir my young heart: a segment from “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind.  As a teenager, I thrilled to the music and visuals of A Hard Day’s Night and was titillated by the scantily-clad girls in I’ll Take Sweden, starring Bob Hope.  As an adult, I counted among my favorite films The Godfather, Mean Streets, Red River, Hud, Lonely are the Brave, Easy Rider, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Midnight Cowboy, and Deliverance

For the class, I presented some films―available at video rental stores in the area―I’d never before seen, including Dark Victory, It Happened One Night, and Robert Enrico’s masterful short An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.  In addition, I presented a film whose story line I hoped would be particularly encouraging to my Latino students: Stand and Deliver, in which Edward James Olmos plays a Latino inner-city high school instructor who inspires his students from troubled neighborhoods to overcome huge odds and master advanced mathematics. 

I enjoyed teaching the class, and yet there were times when I felt like I was pimping out a subject that had no place being taught in a community college.  I found myself coming to the conclusion that movies―no matter how critically acclaimed, no matter their artistic and technical achievement―are essentially entertainment, rarely an intellectual exercise.  And if community college students needed anything, I thought, they needed to exercise their minds in the fundamentals of academics; “film” would have to wait for the four-year university or college.  Indeed, I suspected that many of my students were requiring a hand-up in a community college precisely because they had spent too much time watching movies and television in high school, and that “video” had made mush of their curiosity, critical thinking, and imaginations.  Why, the very textbooks that I used to teach my classes often contained a compelling essay―”Amusing Ourselves to Death?”―by university professor Neil Postman decrying the scourge of television on young minds. In terms of an intellectual exercise, I doubted there was a single movie that could challenge the mind of one of my students more than a mere half-hour of reading the lowliest supermarket pulp fiction. 

And yet, had I not taught the class, I would never have introduced my students―and myself―to the genius and heart-rending tenderness of Charlie Chaplin in City Lights.  I would never have been touched and gratified to hear one of my students, who likely had never met The Tramp, laugh again and again at the primitive film’s visuals and subtle humor.

I also substitute-taught English for several evenings at the Technological Institute of Ciudad Juárez.  The head of the community college English department informed me of the opportunity.  I looked forward to the extra money and, more, the experience of “teaching in Mexico.”  

I met with other American instructors―mostly full-time ones 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, which was southeast of downtown El Paso. 

The campus of the 35-year-old institute was spacious, clean, and attractive.  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 institutional 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 business jackets, dress shirts, and ties now loosened, the women in blouses, skirts, and heels.  I assumed most of them had spent the day working in mid-level or more advanced jobs in some of the dozens of maquiladoras―Mexican assembly plants for computers, mobile phones, appliances, auto parts, and medical devices―I’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.  In any event, 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 sun and make the students feel that they were continuing to get their money’s worth until the return of their regular instructor.  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 liked them immediately.  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.

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To the Rio Arriba!

Another winter in Anthony passed. 

One day, Linda, disenchanted with work at the private medical practice in Las Cruces, and likely dreading a third fiery summer in the Mesilla Valley, saw in a medical journal a job opening for an internal medicine physician in Alamosa, Colorado.  After a phone call, she 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.  She also ate at a local Mexican restaurant she could not recommend enough to me. 

So, nomads once again. 

I, too, looked forward to the move.  Although I had only the vaguest memory of Alamosa itself, I’d never forgotten that windy spring night when I made the car camp in a piñon woodland on a lower slope of La Veta Pass, and I gazed westward at the chilly, rosy embers of a dying sunset over the San Luis Valley, in which Alamosa is located.  I liked that part of the world at once, although never imagined I’d be living there. 

In Anthony, I researched Alamosa and the San Luis Valley in books and maps and on the Internet, to which I was now connected at home and work for the first time.  And I liked what I uncovered. 

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, journalist Charles Lummis, one of the original promoters of the Southwest (and who, in fact, is credited with coining the geographical name “Southwest”) first beheld the Rio Grande in Alamosa as he tramped from Ohio to Los Angeles. 

I learned that Alamosa, population about 10,000, is surrounded by farms and ranch lands.  I was hoping this meant there would be the possibility of continuing the semi-rural life we were enjoying, despite the heat, in Anthony.  

Although I handled the desert heat better than Linda, the prospect of cooler summers―Alamosa rarely gets above 90°F―was attractive.  From my days of following weather reports in Denver, I knew Alamosa is routinely the coldest place in Colorado, even the lower forty-eight.  Yet I now learned it is a dry cold: the San Luis Valley, being in the rain shadow of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains, is effectively a vast, if isolated, desert.  The valley’s abundant crops―including lettuce, wheat, and potatoes―receive their water primarily from a huge underground aquifer; its pastures, from water diverted from the Rio Grande, Rio Conejos, and the occasional rains.  Meanwhile, if I wanted to enjoy deep snows, I would easily find them on the higher elevations of the surrounding mountains.  

I learned that the town is home to Adams State College―today known as Adams State University―where I might continue to teach.

I learned that the town of San Luis, in the southeastern corner of the valley, is the oldest continuously-inhabited town in Colorado, and that it was settled by Hispanics in 1851.  Thus, I wasn’t too surprised to discover that Alamosa―Spanish for “cottonwood”―was 45% Latino.  This suited me, as well.  I’d made numerous Latino friends and acquaintances in my decade 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 wrote 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.” 

Okay, at the approach of the new millennium, millions of America’s Latinos were no longer living “austere” lives.  Meanwhile, my life with Linda had been anything but “stable.”  But I certainly didn’t lack for a “love of land” and what I felt were life’s “simple pleasures.” 

Finally, I especially liked the fact that the Rio Grande, running as it does through Alamosa, would still be with me, still be a thread binding me to the Southwest as much as my new Latino neighbors.  I tried to imagine the Great River’s character through Alamosa; would it be as different as Anthony’s section of the river is from Albuquerque’s?  I couldn’t wait to see.

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Colleagues . . . and One More Dog

In the fall, 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 seventies and eighties, McCarthy was living in El Paso, published but virtually unknown, and writing his masterpiece, Blood Meridian, a phantasmagoric novel of the adventure, hardship, violence, and depravity of the nineteenth-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 nineties 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.  The same probably holds true for today. 

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 New Age guru 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: Despite the temptation, never dress like your students; the bulk of them will not respect you if you do.  Perhaps Ernesto once received the same tip―and reaped its rewards: Certainly, few students at the community college resembled him in matters of dress.)  

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, he 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 a 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 across the concrete-banked Rio Grande―actually, at this point in its journey, rains to the north having ended and snowmelt to the same far from beginning, a mere shadow of the Great River―into Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, so 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.  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’m not certain, 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 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 apparently 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 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 ninety per cent 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, probably yet another Juárezeña.  Medium height, buxom, definitely not 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.”      

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.  He reminded me that “respect is everything,” that he could inspire and earn the respect of a student simply by demonstrating that he respected the student.  I told him I understood that; I’ve tried that; and I’ll try harder―for I was still, in frustration and anger, occasionally hurling a dictionary, thesaurus, or whatever was handy against my study wall while grading student compositions at home.   

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 seventies 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 a modest hill west of El Paso on the New Mexico/Mexico border―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. 

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 twenty 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 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, even for a trip to the shelter in Las Cruces.  “Merry Christmas?” I said.  She beamed and we hugged.  When I gathered and lifted the 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.

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Fire and Water

If I missed anything about my native Northeast during these years in the Southwest, it was a plunge into an abundance of fresh water.  I’ve known great depths of fresh water in New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Ontario.  However, my ideal will forever be a glacier-carved lake cradled in the Berkshire Hills of northwestern Connecticut, where I was fortunate to vacation as a child and adolescent.  Here was my boyhood elixir, water rich with the flavor and aroma of granite, quartz, lilies, sunfish, mussels, white pine root, dragonflies, maple leaves, and, to a lesser extent, gasoline, suntan lotion, beer cans and bottles, and sunken wooden rowboats.  But the sweetness prevailed.

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

New Mexico’s rivers were a different story.  One June, upon exiting, perfumed with sage smoke and dripping, a sweat lodge in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, I plunged into the icy waters of the River of the Cows.  In New Mexico’s Black Range, I camped beside and bathed in the headwaters of the Gila River.  And, prior to moving to Anthony, I had dipped into the Rio Grande in such places as Albuquerque, Isleta Pueblo, and San Antonio.

Now, in Anthony, I had the Great River a mere five-minute drive from my house.            

Our second June in Anthony witnessed eleven consecutive days of temperatures in the low one-hundreds coupled with the typical low humidity of early summer.  Some of those days were windy, with the wind-driven heat fit to scorching 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 runs with few meanders, and its banks are grassy and virtually treeless.  Absent here are the dense, peaceful, and shady bosques of cottonwoods, salt cedar, Russian olive, and willow that border the river in central New Mexico.  Here the river is firmly in the clamp of southern New Mexico agribusiness, which effectively begins 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 is bordered by and quenches the thirst of all manner of commercial crops: chile, onions, cotton, corn, pecans, alfalfa, lettuce, cabbage, and oats.  An occasional dairy farm joins these enterprises.  Tapped by myriad canals and ditches, its flow subject to the gates of New Mexico’s Caballo, Elephant Butte, and Cochiti dams, a stack of national and international agreements and regulations, and the whims of the weather, the Rio Grande through southern New Mexico looks and behaves like a dull canal, its northern curvaceousness, wildness, and relative sloppiness in times of heavy precipitation merely a memory.  Yet it is still two banks and a bed that will not be erased no matter how it is directed.  It still must 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 therefore moving at a brisk pace on that furiously 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 Cochiti and Elephant Butte dams.  Yet I eagerly wandered into it, although only up to my neck: aware that a facility in upriver 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 thrill of the deep and powerful flow was immediate; I hadn’t known such a sensation since I bobbed in the Colorado River outside of Moab, Utah, on a fiery July afternoon a decade earlier.  Is there another feeling like it on the planet?  Even if humanity 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 component of that great, forever-turning “millwheel,” in Hal Borland’s word, that evaporates ocean water, delivers the moist vapors to the mountains, condenses the vapors into rain and snow, and channels 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 that sand immediately beneath my feet.  The Great River (no doubt affronted) 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 refreshed myself 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.

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.  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 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 held onto it and paddled across the current, and scrambled up onto the bank, where he dropped it.  Curtains of water descended from him briefly, 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 mechanics seemingly unique to most canines that has since never ceased to amaze me.  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 crash, and retrieved it.  Already I sensed he could handle any depth and flow of the Rio, at least as it traveled through our county.

In a queer land it was the queerest of afternoons: a hot eastbound river of wind and dust intersecting a flood of chilly water driving southward―the perfect representation of a naturally parched land refusing a drink: narrowly perverse but broadly understandable. 

During the ride home through the yellow world I dried almost completely; Buddy took only slightly longer.  At home, I showered quickly; after all, what could have been more cleansing than the 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.  

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The Rewards of a Fence

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 a 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, possess the basement of Anthony’s sky itself. 

Indeed, Arizona poet Richard Shelton and I might have been on the same wavelength on this subject.  In his celebration of the humble hole, he writes: “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.”

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

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Springtime in the Borderland

By the first week of February, winter was effectively over in the Mesilla Valley.  The winds increased in frequency and velocity.  Dust storms fed by leagues of undeveloped desert and acres of unplanted fields were counties wide and several thousand feet high.  In the fury, the yucca quivered, sheet metal roofs clattered, and road signs gyrated hysterically.  Yet, as in Albuquerque, I loved the spring winds: the new year eagerly emerging from hibernation; the deep, robust respirations of a vibrant planet; the howling messages from the most distant places.  By the third week of February water began filling a number of ditches, and disc harrows again combed the fields.

The winds continued in March, washing over our house and property like ocean waves.  Columns of pungent smoke rose around the valley: weeds being eradicated from ditches with fire.  Out on the desert, the snakeweed greened, the mesquite leafed.  Despite my protestations, Buddy regularly nibbled on the manure recently spread on the field behind our house. 

In April, I explored nearby Camel Mountain.

The mountain stands 4,687 feet above sea level in a remote part of a remote state.  As the raven flies, its peak is six-tenths of a mile from the border with Chihuahua.  The mountain’s vertical relief is some five hundred feet, and thus the formation is not a particularly challenging climb.  But that was okay: testing my fitness or satisfying my ego 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; 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, perhaps a little bit of the windy, dusty Mexican landscape that Howard, Dobbs, and Curtin experience in the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, my favorite motion picture set in that mysterious country.  And I wanted to do it from the familiarity―and, yes, 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.  It was named for the Middle Eastern ungulate, although I discerned no obvious 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, 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 a rock, but nothing a bolt cutter couldn’t overcome. 

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 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 tortilla-like ears flapping in the wind, or me periodically blowing my runny nose, I was determined to not let the presence of the equipment ruffle 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 visit either. 

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

There, in Chihuahua, I saw a cloud of dust issuing likely from a playa―Spanish for “beach,” but also a common sandy area in the greater Southwest that is dry except after rains―and a nearby dust devil rise and just as quickly collapse.  The landscape was dotted like a dalmatian with mesquite.  As I viewed sullen hills and parched, serrated mountain ranges―the Cormac McCarthy country of his epic, phantasmagoric novel Blood Meridian―I dipped into my pack and consulted my photocopied map of northern Chihuahua (compliments of UNM’s Map and Geographic Information Center) in the hopes of identifying some or all 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 the 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 Mexico’s tourist magnet Copper Canyon.  If I knew a bilingual Chihuahuan with a backpack, I’d pay him or her anything to spend a single windy spring night camping on any one of these formations.  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 Mexican border town of Las Palomas.  But I saw no people in all of this space: no federales; no policia; no farmers; no 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 promise, providing one could avoid death by heat prostration.  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 international railroad bridges bookended with doors of dense steel mesh.  

Then Buddy, who’d been seated and gazing with me, lay 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 and botany and ready to move. 

Before we did, however, I chose to sustain the mood a trifle longer.  I broke into a Buffy St. Marie song, her haunting 1969 recording “The Vampire,” which to this day comes to my mind when I imagine rural Mexico.  The song concerns a woman―I imagine a young and attractive señorita wrapped in a rebozo―who, on a cold, moonlit November night, as snow prepares to fall, encounters on a road―a dirt road, I envision, on the outskirts of a primitive village in northern Chihuahua―a tall, old man in whose eye she fails to see her reflection.  In her innocence―or blindness?―she provides him with a bed for the night.  Meanwhile, we hear Buffy’s acoustic guitar, alternately ebbing and flowing, and some effective but not overbearing electronic sound effects.  Then, in the dead of night, the moment arrives when we know the man hovers, fangs bared, over the equally bared neck of the prostrate Mexican maiden.  And the maiden is powerless to stop him, for she is in want of her “rosary,” which she “never used . . . very well” in any case.  Thus, this lapsed Catholic does the old man’s “bidding.”  I couldn’t approach Buffy’s tremulous, icy soprano, but I sang lustily on that mountain anyway.  Perhaps I was joined in song by the eavesdropping technocrat in El Paso.

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.