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A Third House, in El Norte

In late May, Linda and I drove to Alamosa to hunt for our third house.  Entering the Valley was, in some respects, like being thrust back into my native Northeast.  It was still spring there: 70 degrees, 25 degrees cooler than Anthony.  There was a generous smear of high clouds above the Valley, creating a filtered light that soothed eyes more accustomed to the striating Chihuahuan Desert light.  And, in Alamosa itself, there was much more greenery than in a desert New Mexico town.

On the east side of the Valley, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise steeply, climbing to altitudes of 13,000 and 14,000 feet and thus presenting awesome reliefs of 6,000 to 7,000 feet; they looked almost unscalable.  Their higher elevations were piled with snow, recalling my depressing days of briefly living among the Gore and Williams Fork ranges to the north.  However, now a fundamentally happier person who’d grown weary of the desert fires, I looked at this range with a longing to explore. 

The west side of the Valley is bordered by the more gradually-inclining San Juan range, peaks that run from 10,000 to 13,000 feet.  

If any of these ranges included private, as opposed to national forest, land, that land appeared to be sparsely populated.

And there is a remarkably vast and towering dune field―when we arrived, a national monument, today a national park―on the east side of the Valley. 

The heart of the massive Valley is implacably flat: at times during our visit, in my billed cap and with my head tilting downward, I felt as if I were peering into western Nebraska. 

Mountain snowmelt fed the rios Grande and Conejos.  Canals and ditches drew from these rivers for cattle-growing purposes.  Meanwhile, water pumped from the underground aquifer and distributed with massive center-pivot sprinklers irrigated hundreds of circular fields developed for crops. 

In the northern reaches of the Valley, however, there are vast stretches of gray desert scrublands. 

Except in the towns and along the rivers, the Valley had few trees. 

Architecturally, Alamosa was almost completely wood, brick, and stone; most of its neighborhoods looked as if they could have been imported from Ames, Iowa.  There was just a smattering of pueblo-revival structures.  Beyond the town limits, however, there were a number of much newer pueblo-revival style houses.  We made an offer on one of them, and it was accepted. 

Before leaving Alamosa, Linda directed me to a Mexican restaurant she had discovered on her initial visit.  

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Sub

But there was still another semester at the community college to complete.

And, as it happened, an opportunity to substitute teach.  The head of the college English department informed me that a substitute English instructor was needed for several evenings at the Technological Institute of Ciudad Juárez, and I offered my time. 

I looked forward to the extra money and, more, the experience, however flickering, of “teaching in Mexico.”  

I met with other American instructors―mostly full-time ones at the institute, I presumed―of various subjects at an El Paso shopping center near the border, and we climbed into a van for the ride south. 

Evening traffic on the various bridges connecting Juárez with El Paso was considerably less than that during the daytime, so we entered Mexico with a minimum of delay.  We then hurtled this way and that over the more streamlined avenues of Juárez to reach the institute southeast of downtown El Paso. The campus of the 35-five-year-old institute was spacious and tidy. 

Prior to my first class, I met with a pleasant bi-lingual administrator of the institute, and she led me to a second-floor classroom where I was to substitute.  The room had the familiar drabness of my classrooms at El Paso Community College and UNM.  The mujer introduced me to the students in Spanish. 

The students were generally older than any I’d taught in America.  Many of them were smartly dressed, the men in business jackets, dress shirts, and ties now loosened, the women in blouses, skirts, and heels.  I assumed most of them had spent the day working in mid-level or more advanced jobs in some of the dozens of maquiladoras―Mexican assembly plants for computers, mobile phones, appliances, auto parts, and medical devicesI’d heard so much about since moving to the borderland. 

I have little recollection of the precise nature of the English my Juárez students were being taught, although it likely had something to do with communicating with English in the business environment.  The administrator told me that many of the students spoke English, although not with great fluency.  If the class was using a textbook, I was not shown it. 

I quickly concluded that my purpose as a substitute was not to delve into the class’s current linguistic focus, but rather to fill the 75 minutes of class time with conversational English about any topic under the desert moon and make the students feel that they were continuing to get their money’s worth.  I encouraged the students to tell me what they did for a living and share the challenges they felt they faced as students of English.  I also prattled on, quite self-consciously, always wondering how clearly I was communicating, about myself and my impressions of the borderland.  As with my older American students, I sensed my Mexican students were all highly motivated.  To a person, they were respectful, and I liked them throughout. 

After class, the drive back to America was even more disorienting, as night had fallen completely over Mexico and the spring winds drove clouds of dust over the feverish streets and neighborhoods of Juárez.

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To the North Southwest

Another winter in Anthony passed, and our nomadic life resumed. 

Linda, disenchanted with work at the private medical practice in Las Cruces, and not looking forward to a third fiery summer in the Mesilla Valley, noticed, in a medical journal, a job opening for an internal medicine physician in Alamosa, Colorado. 

After a phone call, she flew to Denver, caught a connecting flight, interviewed in Alamosa at a government-funded medical clinic for the indigent, and was offered the job.  With my blessing, she accepted it. 

I’d never forgotten that windy, chilly spring night when I made the car camp in a woodland on La Veta Pass, and gazed westward at the San Luis Valley, in which Alamosa is located.  I liked that arid, remote part of the world immediately. 

In Anthony, I researched Alamosa―located in south-central Colorado, 30 miles north of the New Mexico state line―and the San Luis Valley, consulting books, maps, and the Internet, to which I was now connected at home and work for the first time.  What I discovered about Alamosa and the Valley at the end of the 20th century largely holds true today.   

In the winter of 1806, the explorer Zebulon Pike―who historian David Lavender characterized as a “natural dupe . . . earnest, ambitious, dutiful, and naive”―and his men, frozen and nearly starving to death, discovered the valley on behalf of the White race of the fledgling United States during their attempt to find the headwaters of the Red River. 

Some eight decades later, Charles Lummis, one of the original promoters of the Southwest―and who is credited with coining the name “Southwest”―beheld Alamosa―and, for the first time in his life, the Rio Grande, which courses through Alamosa―as he tramped from Ohio to Los Angeles. 

The Valley is over one-and-a-half times the size of Connecticut and has a population of some 48,000. 

In the rain shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the west, the central Valley is a desert, although a desert naturally watered by the rios Grande and Conejos, and artificially by a massive underground aquifer.  The Valley stands at an altitude of 7,600 feet, making it the largest alpine valley in the world.  At this altitude, the temperature in the Valley rarely reaches 90 degrees.  In the winter, the Valley is often bitter cold, but it is a desert-dry cold, and thus, many in the Valley would maintain, more tolerable than the cold of, say, Buffalo, New York.    If one longs for Colorado’s deep snows, she or he can find them on the peaks, ridges, and meadows of the surrounding mountains. 

The Valley is farming and ranching country.  Its crops include lettuce, wheat, and potatoes; Hereford and Angus cattle graze its rangelands.   

The town of San Luis, in the southeastern corner of the Valley, is the oldest continuously-inhabited town in Colorado, settled by Hispanics in 1851.  Meanwhile, Latinos comprise 45 percent of Alamosa’s population.  This suited me very well.  I’d made Latino friends and acquaintances in my decade in New Mexico, and I came to appreciate many aspects of Latino culture beyond simply the food.  “Perhaps because of his love of land,” Erna Fergusson wrote in 1941, “his disinclination to leave his native place, and his ability to enrich an austere life with simple pleasures, the Latin seems to have a basic stability which the Nordic in similar situations lacks.”  True, at the approach of the new millennium, millions of America’s Latinos were no longer living “austere” lives.  Meanwhile, my life with Linda had been anything but “stable.”  But I certainly didn’t lack for a “love of land” and what I felt were life’s “simple pleasures.”

The fact that the Rio Grande runs through the heart of Alamosa was comforting, certainly an added attraction: The river would still be with me, still remain a thread binding me to the Southwest as much as my new Latino neighbors.

 

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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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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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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 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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Perdido

One day during the second week of September, Buddy didn’t return to our house within a couple hours of his ramble, as he always did.  I simply attributed this to his independence.  However, when he had not shown up by noon of the following day, and had thus skipped two meals, I began to worry.  Of course, I recalled the many dead dogs we’d seen along Doña Ana County roads and highways. 

Rapidly mounting dread began to couple with anger at my naiveté.  Then I became angry at my fellow Doña Ana County residents.  Aware of all the empty beer cans and wine and liquor bottles along county thoroughfares, I cursed their drunken driving.  And I cursed their careless driving when they were sober.

However, while I was coming apart, preparing to write Buddy’s obituary in absentia, my wife, still composed and, as always, practical, decided we should gather up a photo of Buddy, some colored highlighters, and push pins, and head to the nearest copy shop to create some lost-dog posters.  A fool’s errand, I thought sadly: In one of the poorest counties in New Mexico, when there are fields to be harvested and children readied for another year of school, who’ll stop and read a sun-faded poster tacked to a tree trunk or telephone pole?  But I glumly went along. 

At an El Paso copy shop we ran off 15 posters, which, owing to Linda’s recollection of her high school Spanish, wisely included the words “perdido” and “recompensa.”  Driving around in my truck, we paused to tack the posters along the country roads roughly within a mile radius of our house.  Throughout, Linda periodically called out “Buhhhhhh-deeee!”―a wail into the indifferent fields, woods, and ditches that pierced my heart.  Later that afternoon Linda phoned the classifieds department of the El Paso Times, which was delivered throughout the Mesilla Valley, and dictated a lost-dog announcement.  That night I slept miserably.

The following morning, a Sunday, while I happened to be on our side patio, a dog appeared, limping down our driveway.  He was mud-caked and scraped.  Despite his sluggish arrival, he was panting rapidly.  His penis was oozing pus. 

We immediately phoned a veterinary clinic in Las Cruces, and the on-call veterinarian told us to bring Buddy in right away.  X-rays revealed that he had a torn diaphragm and two pelvic fractures.  Surely he had been struck by a motor vehicle.  We left the clinic while the vet prepared to perform “major surgery.” 

Despite Buddy’s obviously serious injuries, I was hugely relieved and, ignorantly perhaps, hopeful about the surgery.  After all, I told myself, he was still young, and he’d made it to our house from wherever he had been. 

The first thing I did when we arrived home was head out in my truck to take down all of the posters, not for practical reasons, but for the sheer relief, joy, and gratitude.  Never had our section of the valley―the roads, ditches, fields, homes both solid and sadly ramshackle, tractors, farmworkers, children, cats, dogs, blossoming alfalfa, seven-foot-high weeds―looked so lovely.  I savored the removal of every poster, while, with some shame, acknowledging the wisdom, not to mention the simple humanity, of tacking them up in the first place.  I thanked the fair skies that had occurred over the previous three days and the muddy ditch that may have cradled Buddy while, broken and torn, he mustered the strength to return.  Acknowledging once again my own carelessness, I apologized to the desert skies for my blanket condemnation of my neighbors.  Finally, I blessed my calm and compassionate wife.

That evening, we returned to the clinic and saw Buddy: sedated, an IV line in his forepaw, under several layers of warmed blankets, and breathing regularly.  He had survived the surgery, which revealed that his liver and intestines had partially entered his chest cavity through the ruptured diaphragm.  Beholding him, I was so grateful that, if he had not survived the trauma, at least he did not die slowly, in agony, filthy, forgotten, in a ditch, beneath a gathering whirlpool of soaring vultures. 

The following morning, remarkably, the veterinarian informed us that Buddy was ready to go home.  I’ve never forgotten that vet, her training, and her hands of an angel.

Over the next six weeks, as fall in the Mesilla Valley arrived, Buddy mended.  In the evenings, he reclined at my feet as I sat in the portal.  Never again did I let him out of my sight and voice control, at least not in our developed part of the Valley. 

In the desert wildlands, I continued to make an exception, for I knew he was safe there.  Once again, in pink and lavender evenings, we sat together at Vevay on our knoll above the Southern Pacific track.  We watched the lights of El Paso and Juárez blossom in the east.  With the approach of a freight train, I held Buddy firmly.  Sometimes, obeying the red light of a block signal, the train came to a halt right beside us, and in so doing seemed to become a black hole into which was sucked not only the clamor of the train, but the noise of the entire world, creating a vast and deep silence underscored by a mile or more of dark and brooding steel on wheels.  

Buddy, meanwhile, attended to every point in space, gazing, sniffing, in my gentle control, yet reveling in the independence of his senses.

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Dogs Days

That first summer, Buddy was a joy to accompany and observe.  Again, he joined me on my first backpack in the Black Range.  He was often with me in a place called Vevay, a vanished settlement in the desert southwest of Anthony through which ran the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.  There, in 100-degree heat, I watched the freight trains while Buddy, unbothered by the flames, would bolt after jackrabbits he flushed from the mesquite, never catching one. 

Patrolling the cotton field behind our house, the hound would accelerate for no apparent reason, sprint 20 yards, stop, leap, and spin―a lean, young canine reveling in his youth.  He’d pause to grab a stick from the ground, merely to shake it vigorously. 

Once, we gave him a foot-long rawhide chew.  Likely unaccustomed to such a feast, he wandered around our property a good part of a morning with the massive thing clenched in his teeth, apparently unwilling to so much as nibble on it, the delayed gratification again at work, but in a tormenting quandary as to where to bury it.  He eventually interred it in the cotton field, where it likely marinated in a flooding or two; who knew if he ever found the filthy, slimy thing again. 

Lord of the manor, after breakfast he’d wander across the road and join the farmworkers in the onion field, occasionally making, somewhat to my embarrassment, a solid deposit among them before resuming his wandering.  The workers ignored him.

Indeed, Buddy’s wanderlust mirrored mine in this fabulous new place.  During the day, he’d often disappear for hours at a time, perhaps revisiting the territory, near or far, that eventually led, however circuitously, to our house, although every night he was either in his outdoor pen or in the house.  I didn’t mind this, nor, I presumed, did Linda.  In fact, I liked Buddy’s independence, befitting of a “country dog,” I thought.  Among other things, it reminded me that we were no longer living among all the perils of the city.

Or were we?

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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.