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Adios, la Frontera

Throughout June and July, while our house in Anthony languished on the market and the fires of summer raged beyond our doors, I once again boxed items for another move, my hands becoming raw from grappling with cardboard, tape gun, and tape. 

One evening, 10 days before our departure, Ernesto, Ernesto’s wife, Linda, and I walked across the Santa Fe Street International Bridge for dinner in Juárez. 

From the bridge, I noticed, painted high on the sloping concrete bank on the Juárez side of the Rio Grande, a three-foot-square portrait of Che Guevara, a reproduction, likely a stencil, of the world-famous Alberto Korda photograph of the Cuban revolutionary, medical doctor, and summary executioner.  Except for a red star on Che’s beret, the painting was in black and white.  In black letters beneath the portrait were the words “El Che Vive XXX Aniversario,” surely a reference to Guevara’s own execution by the Bolivian army in 1967. 

I was tempted to draw the painting to pinko-hater Ernesto’s attention, but did not.  Given Ernesto’s respect for Mexican self-determination, he probably would have reserved judgement. 

At the Juárez foot of the bridge, vendors sold popsicles, handbags, plastic Jesuses in agony on plastic crosses, and automobile sun shades.  Meanwhile, idle cab drivers tempted, in creaky but nonetheless effective English, callow gringos: “You want something big?  Something special?  You want young girls?” 

Juárez was dusty and weary after another day of 100-plus temperatures.  Gazing upward to the foothills of the Sierra Juárez, I saw a crush of one- and two-story businesses and residences, many painted in lavender, sky-blue, pink, and aquamarine.  Everywhere in Mexico there is a love of bright colors.      

After a brief walk down Avenida Benito Juárez, we entered Martino’s Restaurant, where Ernesto and his wife would treat us to a meal.  In the hot evening, the restaurant’s dark, air-conditioned interior was welcome. 

Martino’s was classy: white tablecloths, plump cloth napkins, waiters in white jackets and bow ties, ice in the urinals. 

I drank Corona and scarfed down freshly-baked white bread.  I ate onion soup, its chopped white onions mild, sweet, and crisp.  My salad was pallid iceberg lettuce; tangy shrimp cocktail followed it.  My entrée was a slab of lean beef piled with strips of roasted poblano peppers with a side of whole beans.  Dessert was the Mexican custard known as flan.  I don’t recall if Ernesto disappeared behind another bowl of caldo. 

Immediately after supper, the four of us re-crossed the bridge, and Linda and I said goodbye to Ernesto, his wife, and Juárez. 

While we lived in Anthony, we heard lurid stories about Juárez’s crime related to the exportation of illegal drugs to a drug-hungry United States.  A Las Cruces colleague of Linda’s, a Mexican-born physician, told us of a Juárez plastic surgeon who remade, at gunpoint, the face of a Mexican drug lord, and was then dispatched for his efforts.  But it would be another 10 years or so before the complete explosion of the Juárez drug wars, which were coupled with the mysterious, because apparently non-drug-related, murders of hundreds of Juárez women, turning that city into a terrified place day and night. 

Between my El Paso students who commuted from Mexico, my Instituto students, my adventures in the city with my father and Ernesto, and my experience at Martino’s, I left Juárez with a soft spot in my heart for the legendary city.

Our final night in Anthony was warm, breezy, and humid as fantastic electrical storms, distant and silent, surrounded the little town.  The crushing heat of July made it easier to say goodbye.  Although I considered our experience in the Chihuahuan Desert largely a disappointment, I knew I would always remember the good neighbors we had as well as the cheerful, soulful, humble Mexican-Americans of southern New Mexico and west Texas in general. 

The following afternoon, with the moving van loaded and gone, I climbed in the truck with Buddy; meanwhile, Nick and the two cockatiels joined Linda in the sedan.  We arrived at a motel in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, before nightfall.  The following day we were in Alamosa, Colorado.

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Snow, Spring, Surprise

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

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

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

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

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 miles 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 warming, 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 agriculture’s version of “prescribed burns.”  Out on the desert, the snakeweed greened, the mesquite leafed.  Despite my protests, Buddy regularly nibbled on the manure recently spread on the field behind our house. 

Then: disappointment and anger.  State funding for Linda’s HIV/AIDS clinic suddenly and inexplicably dried up, and the clinic was forced to close.  I was furious with the government in Santa Fe.  I’d read and heard rumors about the system’s ineptitude and corruption; this circumstance seemed to confirm one or the other or both.  Fortunately, medicine was in demand virtually everywhere, and Linda soon found work once again practicing internal medicine at a Las Cruces clinic. 

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The Event

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

The pattern was predictable.  Mornings consisted of empty skies or, at best, skies fleeced with vague, unthreatening, high-altitude cirrus clouds.  By early afternoon, cumulus congestus clouds, caused by rising columns of warm, moist air from the gulfs of Mexico and California and the eastern Pacific Ocean, began to form over the Franklins, Organs, Floridas, and Sierra Juárez.  Brilliantly white, these burgeoning clouds recalled, in their shapes and textures, heaps of mashed potatoes, ballooning mushrooms, and exploding cauliflowers.  As the afternoon progressed, the clouds climbed higher and higher, and their bellies began to darken with raindrops.  When the clouds assumed anvil-shaped heads, the tops of which reaching 10 miles above southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Chihuahua, they were fully-developed cumulonimbi, now prepared to release their payloads. 

Rain in the green world―that is, most of America―is often merely weather; rain, even the lightest rains, in the water-starved desert is an Event.  Iron-gray curtains of rain spread from their mountain cradles and swept slowly across the Valley floor, bearing lightning, thunder, and winds that often kicked up―with a queer juxtaposition, it always seemed to me―towering clouds of dust fleeing for their parched and diaphanous life.  As always, the initial drops to hit the ground briefly perfumed the desert air with the unique Southwestern odor of the moistened dust. 

Then, rain, miraculous rain, rain sometimes so heavy that it reduced visibility to a quarter of a mile. 

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

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

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

Monsoons coupled with flood irrigation taught us two things.  First, mosquitoes occur in the desert providing there is enough standing water, which there was with such a pairing.  Thus, come August, pleasant evenings on our patio and portal were no more as clouds of insects sought blood. 

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

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First Day in Anthony

After spending a night in a Las Cruces motel, we arrived, just ahead of the movers, at our new house in Anthony on a late-May morning.  The movers unloaded the van in light, intermittent showers.  As I directed the movers inside and outside of the house, I sensed a difference in this new place we now called home: an added weight―of silence, stillness, and, given that Anthony is at an altitude of 3,800 feet, an additional 1,500 feet of space above. 

I beheld the surrounding mountains―the Franklins, Potrillos, Aden Hills: scattered, diminutive, barren, and worn.  If the Rockies of Colorado and northern New Mexico are the waves, and the Sandias and Manzanos of central New Mexico the breakers, then the mountains about Anthony are surely the foam, the spindrift.  Our previous neighborhood, on Albuquerque’s east mesa, not far from the Sandias, had wings.  Anthony had wings, too, albeit the wings of a roadrunner.  Anthony felt mainly afoot.

After the movers left, while Linda napped on a bare mattress amid stacks of boxes, our front doorbell rang.  When I opened the door, I encountered a Latino in his mid-50’s.  He had thick, curly, salt-and-pepper hair.  His sparse beard was a week long.  His jeans and buttoned shirt were worn, his running shoes surviving on duct tape.  His scratched, mud-encrusted off-road bicycle leaned against a post of the portal.  His expression was blank, his dark eyes remote.  A sadness seemed to be just below his surface.  I realized where I now was, and thus everything about him seemed to murmur “Mexico.”   

Before I could say anything, he began talking calmly but rapidly in Spanish, oblivious to his words ricocheting off my obvious incomprehension.  As he went on, I summoned what little I recalled from my Spanish classes at UNM, repeatedly interjecting, “No hablo Español.”  However, the man, becoming increasingly agitated, continued talking in Spanish.  I concluded that he had spotted the new arrivals in the neighborhood and was looking for an odd job.  “Work,” I wondered.  What the hell is Spanish for “work”?  I wanted to politely inform him, “No work.”  Yet I couldn’t recall the Spanish.  Eventually, my visitor presented the upheld palm of his right hand, which I took as a request for a handout, and which struck me as an odd shift, given that I thought his original and perfectly honorable desire was for some work in exchange for pay.  Somewhat affronted by this, yet maintaining my composure, I patted the obviously empty pockets of my shorts and, recalling an expression I first learned in Leadville, said firmly, “No dinero.”  With that, my visitor, with no fanfare, turned, mounted his bicycle, left our property, and headed south on Opitz Road, dissolving into this strange new world.  

The evening that followed was calm, its skies were clear.   As I swept a puddle of water from the patio off the kitchen door, I heard the distant voices, in Spanish, of our new neighbors in our section of Anthony.  Had our house’s previous―and original―occupants not been gringos, I would have felt far more alien there.  Now I relaxed in the desert stillness as I watched a full moon rise over the Franklin Mountains.  

 

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Farm Livin’ is the Life for We

In 1997, after nearly a decade in Albuquerque, Linda and I put our house of five years on the market.  Linda accepted a job as medical director of a newly-created, small, state-funded HIV/AIDS clinic in the southern New Mexico city of Las Cruces.  I hoped to find work in the Las Cruces/El Paso, Texas, area teaching. 

This move marked the beginning of our rather nomadic―not to mention quixotic―life together, made possible primarily by the facts that we lived modestly and had chosen early in our marriage to be child-free.  We were a restless couple: Linda restless and adventurous in her career, I restless to experience new landscapes.

Linda was barely familiar with southern New Mexico.  As I have recounted, she visited Carrizozo in the chill of the spring and the White Mountains in the high-elevation cool of the summer, on both occasions just briefly.  I was only slightly better acquainted with the region as a result of several backpacks, my thesis-related explorations, and attendance at a writers conference in Las Cruces.  We certainly knew, from the newspaper and television, that summer in the New Mexico desert, Las Cruces’s location, begins in May and ends in October, with daytime temperatures exceeding 100 degrees for weeks on end.  In any event, we felt we were prepared for the climate and the relentlessly barren landscape.

With a real estate agent, we looked at a number of houses in Las Cruces. 

Then we checked out a dwelling north of Las Cruces that stood beside the Rio Grande in the town of Radium Springs.  Despite the allure of the famous river, we rejected the house: we imagined its property keening with clouds of mosquitoes in the summer, and Linda disliked the grimness of the town’s name. 

Next, the agent drove us in the opposite direction to little unincorporated Anthony, New Mexico, 20 miles south of Las Cruces and bordering the incorporated town of Anthony, Texas.

We weren’t prepared for what I call “the Anthonys.”  Linda was certainly unfamiliar with them, and Anthony, Texas, was merely a forgettable exit sign on I-10 when I briefly investigated El Paso, Texas, 20 miles south of the Anthonys, during the writers conference.  The twin communities are located in the Mesilla Valley, which runs roughly from Radium Springs south to far west Texas as it cradles the Rio Grande.  To the east and west, they are bordered by the Chihuahuan Desert.  Their heart, however, is rich agricultural land―fields of cotton, alfalfa, onions, chile, and corn, groves of pecan and peach trees, all irrigated by the river.  To me, the Anthonys were like the bosque of Albuquerque, albeit the bosque on a lavish scale.  I was immediately charmed by them: their storied river; agriculture; aging houses and warehouses; north-south, single-track, and active railroad line; and canals and ditches―a fascinating, if considerably impoverished, oasis in an unforgiving desert.

Then there was the Anthony, New Mexico, house for sale.  The single-story structure stood by a quiet rural road that served a scattering of houses amid a landscape dominated by farming.  This was yet another New Mexico house in the pueblo-revival style.  However, this pueblo-revival was close to authentic.  Its exterior walls were of actual adobe brick, albeit brick coated with stucco for added protection against the elements.  Pine vigas supported its ceiling and roof.  A little portalof pine posts, wood planks, and tar paper shaded the house’s west entrance.  Cool, rosy saltillo tile comprised the floors of much of the house.  In the sunken living room, a fireplace―an odd feature, I thought, given the resounding desert outside―was blackened by the smoke of pecan logs, pecan being the most readily available firewood in the area.  I particularly liked the diminutive and somewhat isolate rear room whose window looked out upon the Franklin Mountains to the east: an ideal nook for reading and writing.  The agent stressed that the house was kept perfectly comfortable during the long, hot summer by evaporative cooling.

Slender Lombardy poplars lined two sides of the half-acre property.  A large cottonwood tree commanded the front yard.  Deep, tall, and dense stands of various cacti furiously guarded a number of the house’s windows.  Tough, pale, and mostly matted Bermuda grass carpeted the yard.  

Bordering nearly the entire property was a subtle grass-lined ditch, a landscaping phenomenon Linda and I had never before seen.  The agent explained that a level, donut-like depression surrounded the house; the ditch received flood-irrigation water from the agricultural field that abutted the rear of the property; and, when the water overflowed or was channeled from the ditch, it flooded the donut and thus irrigated the property’s grass, trees, cacti, and shrubs while keeping the house’s foundation perfectly dry. 

With a sly smile, the agent concluded this explanation by informing us that the property could be quenched by occasionally offering the “ditch rider,” the man who managed the irrigation for the adjoining field, “five or ten dollars” on a periodic basis during the―this being the desert―lengthy growing season.  With a few hefts of a shovel, the ditch rider would breach an earthen berm that separated the field from our ditch, the liquid gold would flow toward the house, and the house’s vegetation would flourish: for Linda and me, accustomed to hoses and sprinklers, a whole new concept in maintaining a lawn and garden. 

Then, my imagination kicked in.  Forget the artesian wells that supplied my native New Jersey town.  I couldn’t avoid being tingled by the fact that water that had traveled some 600 miles―witnessing 13,000-foot-high snowfields; a historic Colorado mining town; a canyon of appalling depth; orchards of apples, pears, cherries, plums, and apricots; traffic to a factory manufacturing weapons that could spell the end of humanity; dusty Indian pueblos many hundreds of years old; forests of cottonwood, Russian olive, elm, willow, tamarisk; baking desert sands; numerous dams of various sizes and compositions; fields of chile; and anglers fishing for brown trout, bass, and carp―would come to a final rest beneath a delicate raft of newly-cut Bermuda grass at my doorstep.  

Semi-rural living: Linda and I, who had lived in cities and suburbs nearly all of our lives, were smitten with the idea after seeing the Anthony property.  I wish I could claim that the sentiments of such respected figures as Thomas Jefferson, who championed the “yeoman farmer” and extolled country living; Thoreau, who, after surviving the savagery of Maine’s Mount Katahdin, expressed his preference for “partially cultivated country”; and René Dubos, the microbiologist who maintained that “the charm of the countryside has resulted from the ancient management of nature for agricultural purposes” echoed in my mind as I imagined a life in little Anthony, New Mexico. 

In truth, however, it was the opening segment of the vapid 1960’s sitcom Green Acres, about a wealthy and sophisticated Manhattan couple, portrayed by Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor, who move to the country.  The segment included a comical theme song, with its lofty appeals to “farm livin’,” “land spreadin’ out so far and wide,” “chores,” and “fresh air,” and visuals of Albert, still absurdly dressed in his iron business suit, proudly driving a tractor and ineptly pitching hay.  Yes, as surely as Oliver Wendell Douglas, the Albert character, commandeered that tractor, I hoped I would soon be operating the weathered MTD riding mower parked by the worn little shed in the northeast corner of the Anthony property, the mower, we were told, being included with the sale of the property.

Indeed, I would: In the early spring of 1997, our offer on the Anthony house was accepted, our house in Albuquerque sold, and we made plans to move to southern New Mexico that May.

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First Bivouac with My Love

The following month, I continued my exploration of the Southwest, this time with Linda.  We planned to camp at the Valley of the Fires State Park, outside of Carrizozo, New Mexico, in the state’s southeast quadrant. 

I knew very little about Linda’s outdoor experiences.  She told me of once fishing with her father, including sleeping in a tent, at Colorado’s Dillon Reservoir.  I didn’t get the impression it was one of her more enjoyable outings: cold, hard ground seemed to be the event’s main theme.  (Perhaps her future husband was cursing the same cold as he thumbed to his job in Breckenridge, Colorado, on nearby Route 9.) 

Yet I did not doubt she had an appreciation for the beauty and wonders of nature.  While we were together in Colorado, she proudly introduced me to Colorado Springs’s Bear Creek Nature Center; we once bicycled for a day amid the Rockies on a paved path that linked Frisco, Colorado, to Breckenridge; and we had an enjoyable spring picnic, this despite a raw, misty afternoon, on the shortgrass prairie near Kiowa, Colorado. (Splendor in the grass―my somewhat unusual idea, of course.)

I suggested we visit Valley of the Fires for several reasons.  Carrizozo is roughly 100 miles south of Albuquerque, so I figured it had to be warmer than the Duke City, which was still occasionally experiencing the chilly April day.  I was eager to pay my first visit to New Mexico’s only classic American desert and North America’s largest, the Chihuahuan, which encompasses the state park.  Finally, I couldn’t resist the dramatic, almost Biblical, name “Valley of the Fires,” although I had little idea it pertains to a specific geologic characteristic of the park.

Linda’s fellowship at the University of New Mexico gave her exclusive access to the institution’s “recreation” department, and it was from this that we rented an air mattress for her and a tent for the two of us.  (Like me, Linda owned a bulky Sears cloth sleeping bag; no wonder we were compatible.)  The smallest tent available for rent comfortably accommodated as many as four persons: fine, I thought, plenty of room.

We began our journey southward on Interstate 25.  Never having seen the Chihuahuan Desert, I knew little about what to expect in the way of its flora, fauna, geology, and climate (other than its presumed aridity and warmth).  My Audubon Society guide to America’s deserts, which I had purchased just prior to our trek, indicated that the Chihuahuan spreads into New Mexico from northern Mexico in “four fingerlike projections,” with the northernmost projection reaching to “a point just north of” the town of Socorro, which was on our itinerary. 

Of course, there was no sign, official or unofficial, along I-25 announcing our entrance into this desert.  However, as we passed the town of Belen (Spanish, somehow, for “Bethlehem”), 40 miles north of Socorro, I sensed that the character of the landscape was changing.  The Rio Grande, which parallels the interstate to the east, was still bordered by dense woods and the occasional agricultural field greening with spring.  But, just west of the interstate, the land was disrobing, beginning with the disappearing junipers.  Disappearing, as well, were the bones of the land’s lower elevations, those rock outcroppings so common west and north of Albuquerque; they were now being replaced by mere soils given to erosion.  When Sierra Ladrones appeared in the west not far from highway, I could see that the peaks and slopes it presented to the highway were bereft of the dark alpine forests that mantle the Sandia Mountains and the Manzano Mountains just south of the Sandias; instead, the range was dotted with smaller trees and considerably armored with rock.  In the far southeast, meanwhile, I saw, peeking above the horizon, a jagged range that appeared to be devoid of dense forests as well.  

The land was drying.

As we progressed south of Socorro, now well into the desert, one thing was certain: This was not the Sonoran Desert I had witnessed during my visit to Tucson, Arizona, the previous decade.  There were no multi-armed saguaro cacti waving at me; no luxuriant palo verde trees lending their cool green accents to arroyos; no teddy bear cholla cacti with their millions of murderous spines, aglow and threatening misery to the inexperienced Sonoran pedestrian.  The Sonoran is a subtropical, and thus a far more diverse, desert than the Chihuahuan; and, many would agree, a lovelier one.  Indeed, Erna Fergusson described the Sonoran as having “a beauty no fabled wood ever equaled.”  The Sonoran is also known as an “arboreal desert,” one in which, in the artless observation of author and Southwest explorer Alex Shoumatoff, “[s]o much of the vegetation rises over your head.” 

Alas, the high-elevation Chihuahuan Desert we were now witnessing is primarily a monotonous one of squat shrubs and cacti, scattered grasslands, and only an occasional tree, usually the elegant desert willow.  [F]lat, drab, repulsive, strangely fascinating” is how Santa Fe author Oliver La Farge described the New Mexico desert in 1952.  Perhaps no surprise there, given that, as author Tony Hillerman pointed out, La Farge, although a fine chronicler of northern New Mexico, lacked much of a connection to the state’s landscape as a whole.

Yet it was now, for better or worse, our desert.  Soon I would learn that it exists in New Mexico for a couple reasons.  One is the “rain shadow” effect of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, massive landforms blocking the passage of rain-producing weather systems, condemning the mountains’ leeward expanses to unforgiving aridity.  The other is something called the Hadley cell, equatorial atmospheric activity that prevents the production of moisture in southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Mexico. 

Linda and I had lunch in San Antonio, New Mexico, the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, according to a historical marker beside the sleepy village’s main street.  A more unlikely birthplace of the hotel magnate and husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor I could not have imagined.  We crossed the Rio Grande, swelling with spring snowmelt, at the east end of the town, the river’s bosque mirroring Albuquerque’s. 

We continued east on Highway 380.  Now that we were well into the Chihuahuan Desert, I was expecting miles of nearly barren sand, and thus I was surprised to find ourselves coursing across an upland dense with shrubs and dotted with juniper.  Yet the Oscura Mountains to the southeast―climbing to 8,600 feet, barren, burlap-brown―reminded me that this is indeed a land of little rain.  Meanwhile, the vegetation wavered in a building wind.

As we neared a town named Bingham, I knew from my reading that some 20 miles to the south of the highway, on the White Sands Missile Range, there exists a place called Trinity, where our country exploded the first atomic bomb.  Gazing at the surrounding desolation that somehow supported an occasional hardscrabble ranch, I had to marvel at the contrast: a device of staggering sophistication birthed in a territory so primitive.  And I vowed then and there to learn much more about the history of The Bomb. 

For some 20 miles the highway ran through rugged, juniper-forested hills.  Then it traversed a landscape covered―no, smothered―by the blackest rock I’d ever seen, blacker even than the asphalt of the highway.  Most of the rock, which crested and troughed like waves on a tumultuous sea, was jagged, bladed, pointed, and coarsely textured.  Yet there were occasionally patches of the same rock that whorled and rippled and had a creamy smoothness that emitted a sheen beneath the midday sun; in their structure and luster, I couldn’t escape their amusing resemblance to the piles of fresh cow manure I’d recently seen in southeast Utah.  A planet’s peristalsis revealed.  Meanwhile, this seemingly impervious blanket of rock accommodated vegetable life, and abundantly so.  Grasses, shrubs, and cacti throve upon it, their roots having somehow divined life-giving soil. 

After three miles, we exited this landscape that, were it not for the paved highway, would have been utterly unfit for human travel, including by foot.  Soon afterward we arrived at Valley of the Fires State Park.

The park’s campgrounds overlooked the expanse of rock.  After choosing a parking space serving a small campground of hard-packed earth, we strolled―as the wind blew harder than when we motored Highway 380―to the do-it-yourself “pay station” at the park’s entrance.  Occupied now by only a couple other visiting parties, the park was a modest affair with some 15 campgrounds and a cinder block structure containing flush toilets and sinks.  We walked by two faded, dusty trailer houses, one of which had a padlocked door, that appeared to serve as administration buildings.  In the window of the locked trailer there were posters bearing photos of “missing” children last seen in places far removed from Carrizozo.  Affixed to the outside wall of the trailer was a bulletin board.  Enveloped in clear plastic and tacked to the board was a newspaper photo of “Jumbo.”  Wording beneath the photo explained that Jumbo was a 214-ton steel “bottle” that was placed 800 yards from the Trinity explosion and survived the blast intact.  Tacked next to the story of Jumbo―ironically somehow, I thought―was a list of Carrizozo churches. 

At the pay station (we’d yet to encounter any park personnel), we placed our cash in an envelope provided by the park and dropped the envelope through the slot of a steel cylinder that would likely have survived the Trinity explosion as well.  From a lidded wooden box, parched and splintered, beside the cylinder we took a pamphlet that explained the park.  The sea of rock was lava that originated from a now-dormant volcano not far north of 380; the lava field ran south for 44 miles.  The field was known in Spanish as a “malpais,” or badland.  

Holding hands, we walked back to our campground, I several times securing against the wind my black and orange Gallup High School cap, purchased during my return from Utah.  Asphalt, trailers, several automobiles, a state park pickup truck, picnic tables, tents, and rusted grills: No, this was not the wilds of Utah.  Still, owing to its distance from a major city―Albuquerque, 100 miles; El Paso, 135 miles―and the fact that it was a weekday, there was a pleasant tranquility to the place.  And visual splendor existed in nearly all directions: the bed of lava that stretched south to the empty horizons of the Tularosa Basin; the Oscura Mountains, just beyond which brooded the birthplace of the Nuclear Age, to the west; and the Sacramento Mountains, culminating in massive, forested Sierra Blanca, its array of commercial ski slopes still glowing with snow, to the east.

I hadn’t camped in a “state park” since the summer of 1964, when, as a 13-year-old member of a YMCA group of a dozen boys and two handsome, young, bearded honchos―looking back, I suspect they were among the original admirers of the murdered John F. Kennedy―I spent the night in southern Vermont’s Ascutney State Park.  This was in preparation for a canoe trip down the Connecticut River through Vermont and Massachusetts―seven days of sand in my sleeping bag, constant hunger, and constipation.  (Thoroughly accustomed to nesting in complete privacy upon a flush toilet, I sadly discovered―as I clutched in futility, merely for appearance, our expedition’s trenching shovel―that the body mechanics of eliminating in woods and fields did not come naturally to me, and my bowels froze in confusion and hopelessness.)

With the afternoon waning and the wind unrelenting, Linda and I decided to establish a camp quickly, with the erection of the tent our first priority.  I removed the large bag containing the tent from the hatchback of Linda’s Celica and dumped its contents―the rumpled bolt of nylon, the clanging aluminum poles, the tangle of guy ropes, the dirt-encrusted metal stakes―onto the patch of packed ground beside the car.  I didn’t know what was going on in Linda’s mind; for myself, looking at this mess that lacked any instructions, I tried to recall when I had last erected a tent of similar size and sophistication, and could not.   But Linda didn’t flinch, and I, having so far sold myself as a man of the outdoors, dared not, so we began by unfurling and unfolding the nylon and spreading it thoroughly over the ground. 

Or rather attempting to spread it over the ground.  We quickly realized that the wind was invading every square foot of the state park and intent on re-bundling the nylon.  Unsure of the tent’s four corners in the mess, and thus reluctant to drive any stakes, we searched our campground and the unoccupied ones nearby for some hefty rocks to act as temporary anchors.  We found none, so I descended into the lava field, where I eventually came up with four of them.  After weighing down what we presumed were the corners of the tent floor, we came to understand the shelter’s basic mechanics.  It hung from two arches fashioned from the aluminum poles, so we assembled one of the arches and attached it to the still-flattened tent.  However, when we hoisted the arch with the optimism of an Amish barn-raising, the tent, its door flaps unsecured, immediately filled with wind and decided it would be the mainsail of a catamaran instead.  It yanked itself from Linda’s grip and, while I continued to hold on, threatened to deliver me into the black cutlery that was the lava field just to the west.  I somehow managed to deflate and wrestle it to the ground like a roped calf. 

Eventually, despite the bluster, we erected and secured the nylon shelter.  The tent was far too big for our needs, but after four hours in the little Celica, we rather enjoyed its roominess.  Its stakes were tight, its walls and roof taut.  We were proud of our first home in the desert.            

Except for trips to the park restrooms, we spent the remainder of day huddled in the tent against the ongoing wind, weary but, of course, in resilient love.  After unfurling our mattresses and unpacking our sleeping bags, we prepared our supper.  It was a joint effort: Linda whipped up the appetizer, Crunchy Cheetos, and I got under way with the main dish.  A plate of beans, often my fare on solo trips, seemed a bit too bland―and, for a relatively new couple sharing a tent, potentially embarrassing―for the occasion, so I went with that other reliable for the humble camper: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Then, our expedition faced its next challenge: the Svea stove, perched on our picnic table, refused to light in the wild wind.  So, somewhat reluctantly, for we were aware of the extreme flammability of nylon, we brought the little stove into the shelter of the tent, established adequate ventilation, and prepared our meal. 

The mac and cheese cooling rapidly with the disappearance of the sun behind the Oscuras, we ate quickly.  Dessert was the dependable Fig Newtons and mugs of a satisfying hot beverage from the laboratories of General Foods. 

After supper, we bundled up and went for a walk through the campground.  The wind, now clearly coming from the east, continued, roiling the darkness.  To the north, the occasional headlights of motor vehicles crept east and west on 380.  To the east, the town of Carrizozo was a meager string of lights punctuated by a beacon of some kind whose light alternately blossomed and then disappeared every few seconds.  (Prior to our departure, a co-worker had informed me that Carrizozo was a “party town.”  Perhaps, but those few crumbs of light did not exactly suggest revelry.)  After a final trip to the restrooms, we bedded down for the night.

Which was pure pandemonium.  The wind had increased in velocity.  Staring into the tent’s total darkness, I was hoping and praying for Mr. Sandman to deliver me into any degree of slumber, yet he refused even as he spattered against the tent’s walls―remember, this was the desert.  Meanwhile, I was certain Linda was staring with me, could practically feel it.  Every 60 seconds, a wave of wind came roaring from the east, crashing over Carrizozo, over the state park trailers, over the Celica, and finally over our tent, ballooning inward its east wall, tugging at its door flap, straining at its eastside stakes.  And in the diminution of each wave, an air current engaging a flap of some kind on the peak of the tent created a sound that could only be described as a Bronx cheer, as if the desert night were expressing outrage at our meek presence.  This went on until the wee hours.  And so the two newcomers to New Mexico demonstrably learned that wind is an inevitable element of springtime in the state.  (“Arizona blows and Texas sucks,” is how one Santa Fean would eventually explain it to me.)

At an immaculately still sunrise, I crawled out of the wreckage that was our tent.  Three of the four corner stakes were extracted, thus allowing the aluminum arches, designed to scissor, to over-scissor to the point of near collapse, and the tent to resemble a giant pile of melted candle wax.  Obviously, the weight of our corpses had been the only thing that had prevented the tent from being air-mailed to the Trinity site overnight.  Exhausted, our hairdos spiking in all directions, our tympanic membranes frayed, we had a cold breakfast of freeze-dried granola-and-blueberries and more General Foods. 

After we packed the tent, our bedding, and the remains of our food, Linda―curious, I guessed, in her scientific way to the bitter end as well as apparently determined to get our money’s worth―surprised me by proposing that we partake in the park’s self-guided “nature walk” through the lava field before leaving.  So we stumbled over the 100 yards or so of the crude trail, variously composed of dirt and old, crumbling asphalt, that dipped and rose through the waves of lava.  A nature walk for the walking dead.             

Thus, our first morning in New Mexico’s classic desert.  I had expected the desert to appear as disheveled as our dawn tent, our breakfast coiffures.  Yet the grasses and yucca stood upright and apparently intact. 

Yes, it was a miserably sleepless night, and I didn’t know how I would remain awake throughout the long drive back to Albuquerque.  But my sweetheart and I had survived the night’s fury, the black gusts born in the Sacramentos―the revenge of the Mescalero Apaches?―and we wouldn’t have traded it for anything.