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Musings in La Frontera

In April, I explored nearby Camel Mountain.  The mountain stands 4,700 feet above sea level in a remote part of New Mexico.  As the raven flies, its peak is some 3,000 feet from the border with Chihuahua.  The mountain’s vertical relief is 500 feet, and thus the formation is not a particularly challenging climb.  But that was okay: testing my fitness 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; Las 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.  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.  The mountain is presumably named for the Middle Eastern ungulate, although I saw no obvious physical 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 an adjoining rock, but nothing a bolt cutter couldn’t liberate. 

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, unoccupied 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 ears flapping in the wind or me periodically blowing my runny nose, I was determined to not let the presence of the equipment distract 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 venture either. 

Although I had binoculars, I initially gazed south with unaided eyes.  I saw two parallel dirt roads.  Just beyond the farther of the two was a fence, although not a solid or grill-like one 20 feet high and made of steel, as one might have expected given that I was now in the vicinity of “desperate,” “distrusted,” “lawless,” “corrupt” Mexico.  No, it appeared to be the standard barrier of New Mexican cattle-growing country: a mere four-foot-high, four-stranded barbed-wire fence supported by slender and likely rusted metal posts.  In any event, I was certain that beyond this fence was . . . 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; a “beach” in Spanish, it is a common sandy area in the Southwest that is dry except after rains.  The landscape was dotted, like a dalmatian, with mesquite. 

As I viewed sullen hills and parched, serrated mountain ranges―the Cormac McCarthy country of a number of his novels―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 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 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 northern Mexico’s tourist magnet Copper Canyon.  If I knew a bilingual Chihuahuan with backpacking experience, I’d pay him or her anything to spend a single windy spring night camping on any one of these formations, discussing buried treasure. 

And why not?  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 aforementioned Las Palomas.  But I saw no people in all of this space: no federales; no policia; no farmers or 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 unimaginable promise, providing one could avoid death by heat prostration (a slow, horrible way to die).  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 an international railroad bridge 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, botany, and human struggle, and ready to move. 

So we did.  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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The Old Gringo

Several days before Thanksgiving my 83-year-old father arrived at the El Paso airport from New Hampshire. 

The following day, Linda, Dad, and I visited Juárez.  At the El Paso Convention Center we boarded the “Border Jumper Trolley”―actually a simulated trolley with rubber tires―that inched across the Santa Fe Street International Bridge, over the Rio Grande and into the Mexican megalopolis.  We disembarked not far into downtown Juárez with an assurance from the trolley’s PA system―comforting, no doubt, to at least some of the Yankee passengers remembering The Alamo―that the trolley would return us to the United States on the same day from the same location.  

The section of the city through which we walked with no particular destination in mind was crowded, chaotic, and shabby.  Street and sidewalk construction had created giant holes that were, at least by standards to the north, insufficiently barricaded.  I feared my father, who at this point in his life was walking slowly and unsteadily, would disappear into one of them, becoming a permanent part of Juárez’s municipal water system, a Border legend.  But, to my relief, he remained in view.  I could see he was, as in New Mexico, fascinated by the heavily-painted Latinas. 

One morning he joined me at the college.  I introduced him to a number of my students, some of whom commuted from Juárez.  Prior to our arrival, I shared with him some of the phrases I’d grown accustomed to using since teaching in the border city.  Thus, “No hablo Español,” said Dad while smiling and extending his cool, prominently-veined right hand to a student, who gently clasped the hand while returning his smile.  

On a chilly Thanksgiving evening, pecan logs burned in our fireplace, producing a vibrant flame, but a somewhat bitter smoke.  As the turkey cooked, I slipped a CD Dad had brought with him into the player, and Dad danced with Linda to Errol Garner’s rendition of “Poor Butterfly,” which Dad had lately indicated was his favorite song. 

My father was now mostly deaf and had had little success with hearing aids, although this didn’t frustrate him.  In fact, he rarely complained about anything.  Since I had last seen him, he had been diagnosed with a transient ischemic attack, or “mini stroke,” and as a result was easily confused.  He never mentioned the stroke.  For years his favorite outdoor activity was skiing on New Hampshire’s King Hill.  Now, however, my sister and I knew he would never ski again.  Yet our father, to our surprise―for he had always struck us as someone willing to acknowledge his limitations―continued to talk as if he would. 

During the visit, a discussion of nursing homes occurred, not in regard to my father’s health―my sister and I had never suggested to him that he might be a candidate for “long-term care”―but merely incidental to Linda’s adult-medicine practice prior to moving to Anthony.  Then, my father, who was still living independently, weighed in with a remark that was gaining in frequency with him: he said he would kill himself, preferably by an overdose of his prescription medications or by car-exhaust asphyxiation, before entering a nursing home.  It was not a threat, rather merely a declaration as he calmly sipped his martini and gazed contentedly into the blue and gold flames dancing upon pecan logs.  Several days after Thanksgiving, we returned Dad to the El Paso airport.  It would be his final visit to the Southwest. 

Perhaps due to their being thrust into a climate far more arid than New England’s, my father’s legs itched often during his stay, and their skin, now loose and papery with age, bled easily.  With Dad’s departure, I stripped and bundled the sheets and mattress cover, both spotted with blood, from his bed.  Proceeding with the bundle to the laundry room, I passed the guest bathroom that now reeked of the 1950’s, of Mennen Skin Bracer. 

Six years later, Dad passed with relative comfort into the mystic―“Nothing to get riled about,” he assured my sister hours before his death―at a lovely assisted-living facility he willingly entered in his New Hampshire town.  The facility included a bar, open late-afternoons, stocked by the residents, and tended by various volunteer townspeople.  My father’s weakness was vodka martinis.  Not long after his arrival, the bar had to display a two-drink-maximum sign as my father was frequently requesting thirds, thus prompting his fellow residents to do the same, all of which almost resulted in a mutiny of sorts.  In any event, those chilly New Hampshire cocktail hours were likely warmed with tales of Old and New Mexico by a certain fellow.     

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In Absentia: Southwest Echoes in Film and Literature

Except for one more summer in Denver, I spent most of the next four years in upstate New York, where I attended Hobart College, and New Jersey, where I lived in the house I grew up in.  During this time, my sense of the Southwest, still largely formless, began to dwindle even more.  Nevertheless, that distant land still found ways to seep enticingly into my consciousness. 

At Hobart, a class in film introduced me to director John Huston’s gritty The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  I especially enjoyed the movie for its depictions of urban (according to the movie, Tampico), and wilderness Mexico, and for Mexican-born actor Alfonso Bedoya and his memorable performance as a comic, yet cold-blooded, bandito. 

Another course introduced me to Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, a book in which graduate student Castaneda narrates his apprenticeship with a Mexican sorcerer, Don Juan Matus, who prescribes peyote for enlightenment.  Castaneda’s “structural analysis” of Don Juan’s “teachings,” which consumes half the book, bored me.  But, given that I was now well into experimenting with mescaline and LSD, I devoured the passages in which Castaneda trips on peyote in the spacious, glowing desert of northern Mexico, a place that seemed much more conducive to visions than the cabbage fields and dense, dark woods of New York’s Finger Lakes region, Hobart’s location.[1]


[1] Critical studies of Castaneda have today convinced me that his tales of “Don Juan” are pure fiction.