I See by My Outfit, Part 1

Meanwhile, I had one more piece to write for my master’s thesis: my overview of eastern New Mexico’s Great Plains and a profile of a plains resident.  My time spent on the shortgrass prairie of Colorado 15 years earlier was too epiphanic not to repeat in New Mexico, with the added pleasure of writing about it at considerable length. 

I connected with Bobby, an 84-four-year-old semi-retired cattle rancher, with the help of the district ranger of the Kiowa National Grasslands, which surrounded Bobby’s house in the northeastern New Mexico town of Mills.  Mills was effectively a ghost town.  Its only residents were Bobby and his wife and those of a nearby house.  A post office in Mills served the surrounding countryside. 

Before meeting Bobby, I spent several autumn days wandering around Harding County, in which Mills is located.  One night, I stayed in an old hotel in Roy, New Mexico―and a better name for a ranching town I could not imagine; the “King of Western Swing,” Bob Wills, once cut hair there.  Although tiny, compared to Mills, Roy was a bustling population center.  Another night, I camped out on the prairie not far from Bobby’s house, where the yawning plains and occasional headland spread and rolled gently west to the surprisingly grand canyon of the Canadian River. 

During this time, I reveled in my fantasies.  In my pickup (a Toyota, so three-tenths deduction in that buy-American country) and wearing my cowboy boots from my days of hitting the Denver country-and-western nightclubs with Linda, I was the cowpuncher of my childhood fantasies―and, I admitted, Ed Abbey’s despised “instant redneck.” 

I thought of movies.  I was Paul Newman in the “modern-day western” Hud (“the man with the barbed-wire soul”), Kirk Douglas in Lonely are the Brave, and Robert Duvall’s down-and-out country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies.  In another corner of my imagination, I was Brooklyn’s Truman Capote (minus the cigarette held delicately aloft between two fingers) when, decades earlier, he arrived “out there” in western Kansas for a rather run-of-the-mill investigation; six years or so later, that investigation resulted in a favorite book of mine, In Cold Blood, which dazzled the literary world, made Capote rich, and began his ruin.  Out there, I even entered the skin of Dick―“Deal me out, baby, I’m a normal”―Hickock, one of In Cold Blood’s crudely handsome, masculine murderers.  (But this was my overripe imagination back then.  Out there today I would prefer to think of myself as cutting a more decolored figure: say, 19th-century prairie wanderer, intellectual, and health-seeker Josiah Gregg or 20th-century nature writer and eastern Colorado native Hal Borland.)

All the while, I made merry in the explosion of space and sky, the weird emptiness, the monolithic sameness.  A land wrapped in sky.  A land of appalling horizontal depth in which my presence spread unobstructed for miles in all directions, thinning and threatening to dissolve.  A land of the pronghorn, the deerlike creature who found safety in space because hyper vigilant and fleet of foot, the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere.  As N. Scott Momaday observed of his plains-dwelling Native American ancestors, “The Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind” in the forests.

A land where heights are few―the windmill, the grain elevator, the Siberian elm, the Baptist steeple, the Baptist―and acrophobia is bored.     



Buttes Portending Mesas

One day in May of 1979, my sister suggested she and I visit the Pawnee Buttes, 85 miles northeast of Denver, on the Great Plains.  Until that day, my explorations in Colorado never took me any farther east than the edge-of-the-plains cities of Pueblo and Greeley.  In my years of getting to and from Denver by car and bus, I had crossed the Great Plains several times, but it was never a destination.  Neither the shortgrass prairie, about as interesting as, in the words of Willa Cather, the surface of sheet iron, nor the occasional polyp of a high-plains farming or ranching community held any attraction for me. 

Until, that is, the day I visited the twin buttes, which, along with their surroundings, entranced me.  Standing within a half-mile of one another, both breast-like formations are some 300 feet high.  Composed of gray and white clays and nearly barren, they stand in appalling solitude on a sea of grass, glowing towers refusing to obey the horizontal axiom that surrounds them for scores of miles in all directions.  Their lonely presence seems inexplicable, as if they had been mysteriously fashioned in and then dropped from the massive eastern Colorado sky.  They have a charming ability to evoke the familiar: Greek temples, pyramids, and sphinxes; for me, they particularly recall the ferry boats I occasionally rode in my childhood.  

On foot, I circumnavigated one, which took a mere 20 minutes.  Spreading from its southern base was a maze of deep, barren arroyos: a mini-badland, nervous intaglio to the butte’s serene cameo, that extended for a quarter-mile before surrendering to the insistent plains smoothness. It took me another twenty minutes to climb to the butte’s anvil-like peak.  From this eminence I saw the Great Plains as never before.  Its implacable flatness calmed my soul.  “[T]here is something very restful about the horizontal line,” wrote desert sojourner John C. Van Dyke in 1901.  “Things that lie flat are at peace and the mind grows peaceful with them.”  The awesome space surrounding me was not emptiness, but substance, a queer weight upon the land, a powerful presence.  My reaction to the Pawnee Buttes and their spacious surroundings anticipated my fascination, a decade later, with the mesas of the high plateaus of New Mexico, Arizona, and southeast Utah.  

These buttes and plains are also the first landforms I ever bothered to capture in writingfor starters, merely scribblings in a cheap notebooktheir seeming simplicity lending themselves so easily to the written word.  And more.  Again, Van Dyke: “The landscape that is the simplest in form and the finest in color is by all odds the most beautiful.” 

Forget the storied Rockies: Since that day in May, the Pawnee Buttes have been my most beloved Colorado landforms.[1]

[1] Brooklynite Truman Capote’s reaction to the Great Plains―in his case, those of western Kansas, when he was chronicling events there that would result in his masterpiece, In Cold Blood―was not unlike my own.  Capote biographer Gerald Clarke writes: “Even the location, a part of the country as alien to [Capote] as the steppes of Russia, had a perverse appeal. ‘Everything would seem freshly minted,’ [Capote] later explained, reconstructing his thinking at the time. ‘The people, their accents and attitude, the landscape, its contours, the weather.  All this, it seemed to me, could only sharpen my eye and quicken my ear.’”