Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Return to the Great Plains – Part 2 – “Out There”

At Walsh, Colorado, which was a skosh more developed and busier than Kim, I drove south on a secondary country road, crossed the North Fork of the Cimarron River, and continued south to the junction of Highway 51, where I headed east.  In short order, I temporarily jettisoned an hour of my life when, entering Kansas, I entered the Central Time Zone.  A brief jaunt south on Highway 27 took me to a bridge over the Cimarron River.  There, I parked my truck, hoisted my pack, and headed east along the river’s bank in search of a suitable campsite.

I was expecting a plains version of a “wilderness experience” along the Cimarron.  After all, I was in the heart of a national grassland, with all the reasonable measures against excessive development I presumed this federal designation implied.  And I had taken Truman Capote at his word when he wrote, in In Cold Blood, that western Kansas was “a lonesome area” that Kansans from the eastern half of the state called “out there.” 

However, I was initially disappointed.  Sure, there were some undeveloped expanses of native grasses “out there,” but there were also acres of agricultural fields; dozens of scattered oil pumpjacks, their horseheads bobbing monotonously; and numerous aboveground pipelines presumably carrying natural gas.  But I suppose Capote is to be excused: his observation was drawn in 1965, when he was living in Brooklyn Heights; after Brooklyn, New York, I suspect anything would appear to be a “lonesome area.”  In any event, there was far more development here than in Kim and Walsh. 

More disappointments: I expected the Cimarron River to be nestled in a modest canyon like the one that contained the Purgatoire.  Instead, the river was in a mere crease in the landscape.  In addition, this being spring, I expected the river to have a respectable flow, but it merely pooled and trickled intermittently as it wound its way eastward.  In this regard, perhaps I should have studied my various regional maps more carefully: the Cimarron is revealingly known as the Dry Cimarron throughout New Mexico, where it begins just east of the city of Raton.  It is only in Oklahoma and then Kansas that it begins to be identified as simply the Cimarron.  Greater precipitation east of New Mexico?  Perhaps.

(A totally separate Cimarron River originates, appropriately enough, in northern New Mexico’s Cimarron Mountains and enters the Canadian River east of Springer, New Mexico.)

On the other hand, where I was camped, the river was blessedly fenced off from thirsty livestock that are in the habit of pissing and shitting as they drink.  And, after I came to terms with my disappointment and calmed down, the fundamental wildness of the river and its surroundings began to reveal itself.  Like always, like everywhere in nature. 

I heard meadowlarks, mourning doves, killdeer, and red-wings.  I saw deer prints in the sand.  I marveled at the evidence―the riverside tree trunks wrapped high in a poultice of mud, grass, branches, and rabbit carcasses―of a powerful flood that had occurred on this insipid watercourse.  I looked up through the gaunt, arthritic springtime limbs and branches of old cottonwoods. 

As dusk approached, a breeze arrived, causing the river’s pools to shiver and lending depth and mystery to the place.  At night, through my tent door, I saw a waxing moon in the western sky; I heard the velvety hoot of a great horned owl and the sirens of distant coyotes.  And I reminded myself that I was terribly fortunate to be where I was, and that I ought to allow a place to unfold at its own pace.  The following morning, I left the Great Plains with three days of accumulated space in me, enough perhaps to pry the mountains back home a little farther apart.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Return to the Great Plains – Part 1

During my first spring in the valley, weary of the surrounding mountains―the weight of their prodigious snowfields and the way they seemed to crimp each day’s helping of daylight―I once again felt the lure of the Great Plains, the “GREAT AMERICAN DESERT” on explorer Stephen Long’s 1821 map.  

So I got in my truck and drove east, entering the plains at Walsenburg, Colorado, where I continued in the same direction on empty, laser-straight Colorado Highway 10.  There, I passed barbed-wire fences bearing no-trespassing signs faded into near invisibility by incessant sunlight, scouring wind and dust, and utter human disinterest; empty pastures gone to yucca and cholla; and lonely mini-mesas, buttes, promontories, and nubbins; all in the wrap of sky and beneath the crush of space. 

Nothing else.  Not even Cary Grant in a dusty suit. 

At the Kopper Kitchen in La Junta, Colorado, I ate a “chiliburger,” a factory-stamped beef patty on a slice of Holsum Bread, all drowned in a “chili sauce” so bland I added ketchup to give it a kick, any kind of a kick.  A Southwestern travesty.  And in a town with a Spanish name!

Then I headed south into the Comanche National Grassland. After the Comanche nation, once the most fearsome on the North American continent.

There, with a fully-loaded backpack, prepared to camp for a night, I explored a strange geological shiver on that otherwise smooth land: the half-mile-wide canyon of the Purgatoire River and its various feeder canyons, all of them burrowing echoes of the massive Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Spanish Peaks to the west.  The Purgatoire, about 30 feet wide, moved at the pace of a Western box turtle on its journey to its confluence with the far larger Arkansas River east of Las Animas, Colorado. 

These worn canyons were not the colorful, sheer, deep defiles of southeast Utah.  They were generally twenty to thirty feet deep and consisted of two tiers of sandstone separated by a gentle dirt slope.  With a sound body one could climb out of them at nearly any point.  They were filled with grasses, sagebrush, cholla, the occasional cottonwood, and, along the riverbanks, willow and salt cedar.  They didn’t boom with space and vibrate with broken rock, as in Utah; they rather slumbered.

At various times of day, they filled with the music of the meadowlark, flicker, red-wing blackbird, and, far too infrequently, the signature bird of the canyon country: the delicate canyon wren with a plummeting call somehow appropriate for places with depth.  Meanwhile, above soared the red-tailed hawk and the first vultures of the season. 

In the appalling emptiness of the plains, the womblike shelter these canyons offered was particularly welcome.  I saw not a single foot traveler.  And who the hell backpacks on the Great Plains, anyway?  Trudging along beneath my load, I was a Four Corners, hump-backed Kokapelli gone astray, feeling as queer on this landscape as a blue spruce or bull elk.

The following morning, wishing to escape any sight of the Rocky Mountains, I continued southeast, past miles and miles of treeless pastures, barbed-wire fences, windmills, and dry creeks.  My next destination: the Cimarron River in the Cimarron National Grassland of southwestern Kansas. 

On the way, I paused on a windy afternoon to investigate an abandoned house near Kim, Colorado.  (Kim, Rush, Vona, Cope, Joes, Otis, Hale, Kirk, Roy, Pep, Dora, Eads: Why do high plains towns often have names as short as the native grass that carpets them?) 

From the road, the house was not hard to identify as abandoned: its dirt driveway was choked with weeds, and the vivid plains sky streamed through many of its curtainless windows, some without panes.  A raptor, nesting or merely hunting, alighted from somewhere in or on the single-story structure as I approached.  The house’s roof, nearly stripped of shingles, was a bristle of nails.  The roof that day notwithstanding, the obvious fitness of the sandstone-and-concrete-mortar structure might at one time have been the envy of Kimians.  With a warring mixture of curiosity and anxiety―Abandoned or occupied, what can be more private and personal than an American home?―I entered. 

The house included a sun room windowed with tall plexi-glass.  A large, vinyl-upholstered easy chair, now in considerable decay, was its only piece of furniture.  I wondered why this sumptuous chair was abandoned on this smooth, hard land where even a natural seat is difficult to come by.  Around the chair were scattered magazines―Farm Journal, Life, Better Homes and Gardens―from the early fifties and an October 1964 issue of Grit magazine. 

The kitchen’s wooden cabinets and shelving were rotten and caked with rodent turds.  The living room included a fireplace, although the obvious question was, where did one find an abundant supply of wood for it?  Meanwhile, the wind howled through holes in the roof.  Wary of prairie rattlers, I descended into the basement cautiously.  The basement had two rooms, each with a closet, the closet likely doubling as a tornado shelter.  How precious, amid the stare of all this space, must have been the privacy of a simple little bedroom constructed of flimsy walls in a simple little house on the plains. 

Back outside the house, as the flushed raptor circled directly overhead, I discovered what appeared to be a concrete cistern, bone dry.  There was a corral, and a stable with a cinderblock foundation.  Six trees, likely fruit of some kind and apparently dead, stood in a row.  A rusted, windowless Chevy Impala, minus wheels and bearing 1963 Colorado plates, perched on a great pedestal of dirt.  The surrounding yard was littered with cow manure: home, home on the range. 

I’ve entered abandoned houses in such Great Plains counties as Weld in Colorado and Harding and Union in New Mexico.  There are few things emptier, sadder.  Unlike their counterparts in cities, their missing windows―rendering them “sightless,” in the words of author Max Evans, who lived for years in Des Moines, New Mexico―and doors are rarely boarded up, probably because there’s no interest whatsoever in entering them.  So the surrounding space flushes and scours them outside and in. 

A major scourge of cities is homelessness.  For decades, places like Kim, Colorado; Mills, New Mexico; and Rolla, Kansas, have grappled with a different kind of tragedy: homes without people.  Peoplelessness.  Since the 1920s, due to consolidation and automation in the farming industry―and, yes, perhaps a lack of vision―population has been steadily decreasing in the rural areas of the Great Plains.  Human-caused climate change might be the final nail in the coffin. Maybe wind farming will reverse this trend.  Maybe, as has been proposed, vast tracts of the plains will be transformed into a federal nature preserve, a “buffalo commons” employing caretakers.  In any event, the peoplelessness allowed me to brazenly snoop around that property and, as my guts churned, imagine the whole human spectrum of hope, perseverance, disappointment, and ultimate failure.  The ruinous dwelling in Kim brought to mind Robert Duvall’s modern-day plainsman character in the motion picture Tender Mercies when he proclaimed: “You see, I don’t trust happiness.  I never did.  I never will.” 

Finally, I wondered where that cool Impala went on a Saturday night in Kim, Colorado, when JFK was president.

Uncategorized

I See by My Outfit – Part 2

I immediately took to Bobby and his wife, Peggy, who, draped in a gentle weariness, also appeared to be in or near her ninth decade.  They were a quiet couple; the long pauses in their speech seemed to echo the vast spaces on the land that surrounded them.  

Before taking me on a tour of his ranch and a special place of his beyond the flatlands, Bobby―shorter and pudgier than I expected a cattleman to be―escorted me to a shed not far from his house.  While he proudly demonstrated his rusted “walkin’ wheat drill,” a single-wheeled, manual device for seed implantation, I couldn’t help but draw attention to what sounded to me like the hum of a large electrical transformer directly beneath the floor upon which we stood.  Bobby, apparently oblivious to the sound until then, explained that I was hearing a mess of rattlesnakes aroused by our presence directly above, and my city blood began to curdle.  As we moved about the shed, the hum beneath seemed to follow our footsteps like a puddle rapidly spreading.  Bobby then told me about the rattlesnake bite his dog once sustained on the nose, how the dog’s face gruesomely ballooned before he managed to recover.  I had read that the venom of the prairie rattlesnake was particularly nasty, so I was now grateful for the imperviousness of the shed’s wood floor. 

We then got into Bobby’s pickup and drove to a nearby pasture, where some twenty bawling Hereford cattle converged upon us.  Bobby kindly asked me to step out and remove a salt block―for the animals’ nourishment―from the truck bed and toss it anywhere.  I did so readily: happy to assist and, for a few seconds, feeling like a real ranch hand.  Bobby then explained how lightning strikes occasionally claimed the lives of his cattle, and I was glad we were well out of New Mexico’s monsoon season. 

Lately I’d been infuriated when encountering cattle and their evidence on the public-land deserts of Utah and New Mexico: their fresh, abundant manure stinking and smothering; their hooves disturbing delicate soils; their urine fouling what meager natural water sources existed on the desert; their thorough destruction of areas surrounding the occasional shade tree.  Yet, now in my cowboy mode, grateful for Bobby’s generosity, in awe of his and Peggy’s sticking it out in Mills during the horrors of the Dust Bowl, and noting the endless, seamless, resilient carpet of grama and bluestem grasses that seemed to disguise if not absorb the shit of Bobby’s cattle, I couldn’t bring myself to pass judgement on these massive, dumb, wall-eyed beasts destined for the “processing plant” and the captive bolt pistol―or certainly judgement on Bobby. 

We then drove to Bobby’s pride and joy five miles southwest of his house: Mills Canyon of the Canadian River.  The canyon is only six hundred feet deep and about a mile wide, but amid the horizontal imperative of the surrounding plains, it is striking.  After we arrived at the canyon floor via a primitive dirt road, I estimated the climb out on foot would take at least an hour, and, at roughly a mile in altitude, it would get the heart pumping―a respectable workout for the backpacker/ranch hand.  In that relentlessly flat land, I―and, I suspected, Bobby―likened the canyon to a mountain, albeit an inverted one, with all of a mountain’s charms, challenges, and mystery.  Its verticality, as well as its abundance of ponderosa pine, oak, piñon, and juniper, was a relief from the annihilating space just beyond its edges.  Meanwhile, the Canadian flowed in its depths with a soothing, dry-season gentleness.  Containing only the ruin of a small sandstone ranch house, the canyon was deserted, peaceful, and lovely. 

I left Bobby and Peggy’s house as hopeful as when I parted with Frank the rockhound, eager to translate the experience into words.  Even though Bobby and Peggy were born around the same time as my parents, my regard for them was more akin to that I kindly felt for my paternal grandparents, perhaps because their life in that remote plains settlement still had an aura of the nineteen fifties of my grandparents.    

The following year, my thesis completed, I made a broad sweep of northeastern New Mexico in my truck, passing through the gossamer plains towns of Nara Visa, Amistad, Sedan, Gladstone, and Abbott, and the “city” of Clayton, population 3,000.  At the region’s restaurants and gas pumps, I felt far more at ease now than during my first venture into this land―more at home, more comfortable in my cowboy boots “out there.”  After all, I now had a pair of friends, an anchor of sorts, on the prairie.  With Bobby’s permission, I camped once again on his spread―revisiting my late-afternoon shadow taller than a windmill, listening to the panicky grass in the winds―and then had a Sunday dinner with Bobby, Peggy, and several of their friends.