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We Gather at the River

If I missed anything about my native Northeast during these years in the Southwest, it was a regular plunge into an abundance of fresh water.  I’d known great quantities of fresh water throughout the Northeast―in New Jersey, New York State, Massachusetts, even north-northeast into Ontario.  Of them, my favorite will forever be a glacier-carved lake cradled in the Berkshire Hills of northwestern Connecticut.  Here was my boyhood elixir, water rich with the flavor and aroma of granite, quartz, lilies, sunfish, mussels, white pine root, crayfish, dragonflies, maple leaves, and, to be thorough and honest, this being the old and populous Northeast, gasoline, 6-12, motor oil, beer cans, Tartan, beer bottles, and sunken rowboats.  But the lake was deep, and nature’s touch always prevailed.

It’s not that New Mexico lacks 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.  However, the opportunity to swim, bob, or splash in them had never presented itself.

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

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

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

In Doña Ana County, the Rio 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, with an occasional dairy farm accompanying these acreages.  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 utilized; 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 moving at a brisk pace on that hot afternoon as a dust storm with the odor of ripening onions raged. 

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

The primal―and gently perilous―thrill of the deep and powerful flow was immediate; I hadn’t known such a sensation since I bobbed and paddled in the Colorado River outside of Moab, Utah, on a fiery July afternoon a decade earlier.  Other than an ocean’s shoreline waves, is there another feeling like it on the planet?  Even if humanity, as in dams, had a considerable hand in the force of this flood, it was still transcendent: the collective plunge of thousands of western mountains and hills to the north; Earth’s very pulse; one example of that great, forever-turning “millwheel,” in Hal Borland’s word, that 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 Rio then ate furiously at the surrounding bed, and my feet and the rest of me thus “rose” on two little pedestals of sand.  Then I got creative.  In the shallower water, where the current was nearly as robust, I sat on the bed, drew my knees to my chest, and was soon “hoisted” on a sandy stool.  However, not even this riverbed perch lasted long before the hunger of the current, so I continually planted myself in new places, and cleansed and cooled myself off in the process.  Pure, simple, childlike fun.  Meanwhile, I tried to imagine how many mountains―literally, mountains―of water-driven sand had marched in this manner to the Gulf of Mexico over the eons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dog Who Came to Stay

One day, shortly after Linda and I arrived in Anthony, a dog appeared at my side as I stood at our mailbox just down the road from our house.  He followed me home.  He was a cinnamon-colored shepherd-retriever mix who looked to be about a year old and weighing some 45 pounds.  He had no collar and was not neutered. 

For several days he hung around our property and followed me to and from the mailbox.  I did nothing to encourage his interest in me.  I neither fed nor watered him, although daytime temperatures were in the 100’s.  I didn’t so much as touch him.  Meanwhile, he introduced himself to Linda, who, against my unvoiced wishes, provided him with water. 

We soon concluded that he was just one more of the many stray dogs, a depressing number of which were dead on the shoulders of highways and roads, we had seen in Doña Ana County since our arrival.  Whatever, I was simply hoping my neglect of him would make him go away―dissolving back into the ditches, abandoned houses, fields, or woods from which he had emerged―and never return.  After all, my interests now were tending to our new property, the reading of great books, and the writing of my surely soon-to-be underground bestsellers.  It did occur to me that Linda, whose family had raised, bred, and shown Scotties much of her life, might like an addition to our household, but I knew some of that responsibility would certainly be mine, and I had no interest in caring for and giving companionship to a dog.

But I never flat out said any of this to Linda, so on about day four, as she and I stood in our yard with the anonymous mutt, having drunk his fill from a yet another pan of water Linda had offered him, once again sitting faithfully between us, she suggested we adopt him. 

I objected.

“Fine!” she said with a sting that suggested anything but.  Then she blindsided me with the following: “Then you take him to the shelter in Las Cruces.”

Me?  Take him?  To a shelter?  By myself?

My mind was suddenly a welter. 

First: Of course, you dope!  You want one less dead or dying dog by the side of a road?  That dead or dying dog that angers and disgusts you so much?  It’s simple: You take the stray to a shelter!

But then my mind crawled into dark place: Okay.  She’s playing me.  She knows that I know I’ll be nearly the last to see this poor animal facing concrete, chain-link, dankness, clamor, and―let’s face it, given all the stray dogs around here―the euthanizing table.  And that I’ll give in!

But I backed out of that and took a breath: Of course she doesn’t want to be a part of it, for the very reasons you just imagined.  Now, do you?  You, who love this fabulous new home, largely made possible by her.  You, who now have half an acre of private property, miles of fields and desert, and loads of peace and quiet.  You, who loved that blue belton English setter when you were a kid.  You, who recall that photo of the great Steinbeck at his typewriter . . . with a dog at his side. 

Do YOU?  Step outside yourself for just this once.  She would enjoy a dog.  You might, too.

“Let’s keep him,” I said.

Within minutes, he was seated beside me in the truck as we prepared to go to the IGA for several cans of food.

Linda beamed at the two of us.

“How about calling him Buddy,” she suggested.

“Sure!” I answered with a grin.

Obviously unused to the luxury of motorized travel, Buddy vomited some water en route to the supermarket, but I didn’t care.  And I’d forgotten how easily dogs let go of things that don’t agree with them.

We never posted a “found dog” in any newspaper, and had no second thoughts about that. We took Buddy to an Anthony, New Mexico, veterinary clinic.  I cannot recall, but surely the clinic checked him for a micro-chip, found him lacking, and then implanted him with one.  The clinic neutered and fully inoculated him.  Finally, we gave Buddy a collar to which we attached his county license and an identification tag.     

After a few weeks with Buddy―exploring fields and ditches, watching freight trains in the desert, assessing sunsets from the portal―I was deeply grateful for his company.  He took my mind off things: books I had to read, words I had to produce, a property I had to maintain.  But when I did write, he was always at my side.