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.

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