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 echoed 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 into a wooden 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 spreading or iron filings rising to my magnet. 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 thickness and solidity of the shed’s wood floor.
We then got into Bobby’s pickup and drove to a nearby pasture, where some 20 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.
The longer I lived in New Mexico, the more I’d become infuriated when encountering cattle and their evidence on the public-land deserts of the Southwest: their fresh, abundant manure stinking and smothering; their hooves disturbing delicate soils; their urine fouling what meager natural water sources existed on the landscape; their thorough destruction of areas surrounding the occasional shade tree. Yet now in my cowboy mode, grateful for Bobby’s hospitality, 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 droppings 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 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 was only 600 feet deep and about a mile wide, but amid the horizontal imperative of the surrounding plains, it was striking. After we arrived at the canyon floor via a dirt road, I estimated the climb out on foot would take at least an hour, and, at roughly a mile in altitude, would get the heart pumping―a respectable workout for the backpacker/ranch hand. In that relentlessly flat land, I likened the canyon to a mountain, albeit an inverted one, with all of a mountain’s charms, challenges, and mystery. Its negative height, so to speak, as well as its abundance of ponderosa pine, oak, piñon, and juniper, were 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 the couple’s life in that remote plains settlement still had an aura of the 1950’s of my grandparents.
The following year, my thesis completed, I made a broad sweep of northeastern New Mexico in my truck, passing through the scant plains towns of Nara Visa, Amistad, Sedan, Gladstone, and Abbott, and the plains “city” of Clayton, New Mexico, 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 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. Then I had a Sunday dinner with Bobby, Peggy, and several of their ranching friends.