Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Another direction for this blog

I'm thinking of returning this blog to what at one time I intended to do with it by making it a blog mostly devoted to photographs, mainly nature photographs, most of them taken in or near Austin. Some of the photos may have extended commentary, but more often little or none.
Examples below. Click on pictures for a larger image.

This is a great-tailed grackle, a much-hated bird in Austin, even though they are very pretty in bright light like this. Normally the males look completely black. These are birds that adapt well to humans, and in fact love noise and excitement, so they roost at night (in very large numbers) by preference in areas with lots of activity, like university campuses and shopping malls along I-35 with parking lots which ill-advisedly have a few trees for landscaping. If I buy groceries after dark at a nearby supermarket that fronts the freeway I make sure not to park under a tree. Everybody in Austin knows this, I suppose, but every once in a while as I emerge with my groceries I will notice a car, perhaps with out-of-state plates, parked under a tree and now seriously covered with grackle shit. (How often does anyone get to write "grackle shit" in a blog? Hmm. Google tells us the answer: 181 times before now.)

Anyway, quite a beautiful bird at times. Here are a few more:

Photo somewhere in Austin, I forget where.

This was in Comal Springs in New Braunfels, Texas.

Photo probably taken in my neighbor's back yard. My neighbor has horses. Grackles like horses as well as they like people.

This grackle was preening pretty exuberantly in a dead hackberry tree near my house.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

This year's anti-war parade

I hope this will be my last Austin peace parade blog entry--I started my old blog at stone bridge in 2005, and that year's peace march was one of my first blog entries.

Austin has seen a spring march against the war ever since 2003. The 2003 march, before the war had actually begun, was the largest. As the war went on, the spring peace march became an annual thing and has coincided with South by SouthWest, the big music/film/you-name-it cultural blowout that makes getting around in downtown Austin almost impossible for a week every year. (My, that was surly, wasn't it? We locals are always churlish about outsiders coming in and enjoying themselves at the expense of our convenience.)

In keeping with the spirit of SxSW, the peace march in the past several years has had its own brass band, drums, and a rolling amplified sound system, if nothing else the most original music venue at SxSW, if not the loudest (actually it's not even in the running in the hearing-damage department.) Has kind of a jazz-funeral feel to it.

So I made my way through the traffic this year and we gathered once again with a bunch of other war protesters at the Capitol. There weren't as many of us as previously. Most Americans--and that may still include me--seem to be willing to take Obama at his word that he will bring it to an end. We just came to help remind Obama of who elected him, and that America still wants the war ended sooner rather than later, since he seems to be preoccupied at the moment with the financial ruin left for him as a parting gift of the Bush administration.

When I got there I found that Wavy Gravy, dressed in his clown suit, was, for reasons unknown to me, the honorary master of ceremonies, before the parade, and Grand Marshall (really, that's what they called him) during it.

So anyway, a few photographs of yesterday's peace march. Click on any image for larger view.

The woman below is explaining a Civil War brass canon to her son. This is on the state Capitol grounds before the march.

Listen to your mom, Kid

Wavy Gravy as master of ceremonies

Here we go, a cross-section of Austin

Fiddler and drummers

"Keep Austin Weird" was the slogan of the old hippie Austin; some of us still try to uphold those standards

Wavy Gravy carrying out his duties as parade grand marshal

This woman is singing "Down by the riverside," really belting it out (our destination was City Hall, in fact down by river side.) As you can see she is holding on to the mike and a tambourine with her right hand. What you don't see is that the mike is rolling along on wheels, along with amplifier and speakers, so she has to keep up with it. She is holding on to her kid with her left hand. She had a great voice. I don't know who she is. (Update: Her name is Sara Hickman.)

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Hogan

The Hogan

In 1996 or 1997 Kay stayed a few nights in a Navajo hogan in Canyon de Chelly. She had a mystical experience there and came home determined to build something like it on the back of our property, in a place where the previous owners had constructed a sturdy rabbit hutch out of cedar posts, with a corrugated metal roof and siding of the same material. Kay decided to build what we now call "the hogan" (for lack of a better term) next to the former rabbit condo, which would itself be converted into a primitive kitchen and bathroom.

It was not exactly intended as a real hogan, it was more an effort to construct a place that would have something of the same ambience that Kay felt in Canyon de Chelly.

It was all done on the cheap, with used materials and (in part) volunteer labor. We had a housemate at the time, Catherine, a single woman who wanted more privacy, and she put up some of her own money for the construction in return for free rent if she could live there when it was finished. (She lived there for several years.) Kay's idea was to eventually use it to teach her Native American classes--she was a professor of anthropology and taught Native American religions and Native cultures of the Southwest at St. Edward's University.

Unfortunately, she never had the opportunity to do so. She died before the deal with Catherine was up.

The completed structure is octagonal, stuccoed on the outside and paneled inside with rough-cut local juniper, which still has a faint, nice odor. A door faces east, as it is supposed to, but inauthentically for a hogan there is also another door. The floor is several colors and sizes of ceramic tiles with a polished ammonite fossil placed as a center tile under the skylight. Genuine Navajo hogans of course do not have ceramic tile floors, much less skylights, and this skylight, though pretty, has been a continual source of trouble. The octagonal glass has a decorative pattern etched in it, but being glass, has to be covered with plexiglass on account of occasional hailstorms. The plexiglass, however, eventually cracks through thermal expansion, and I have had to replace it twice.

A breezeway from the inauthentic door connects the hogan with a long narrow kitchen, and then through another door, a bathroom. We replaced the dirt floor of the rabbit hutch with rough-cut limestone flagstones.

When we finished building it, we had a big, eclectic, and genuinely bizarre inaugural ceremony. A lot of people came, friends, Kay's colleagues, relatives, and various Indians who seemed to approve of the place, perhaps grudgingly. There were drums and chanting, and finally a sort of conga line snaking around the building. A ceremonial pipe was passed around. Everyone brought a small gift, and these gifts were placed on a small pottery altar made by Kay's artist sister. It was a weird and lovely occasion.

The altar, and the gifts, are still there.
The hogan altar, with an incense bowl in front of it

Catherine lived there five or six years, staying on past her initial monetary contribution and after that paying some rent. I would probably still be renting it to her, but she found unexpected love, got married and moved out. After that I continued renting it out, usually to to single women who thought it was quaint and cozy, but a couple of years ago I decided not to be a landlord any more, and when the last renter left I converted it to something more like what Kay had in mind. I now use it--infrequently--as a guest room, as for example this Thanksgiving when I will have an overflow crowd of visitors. But mainly I use it as a meditation room.

So I get up before sunrise every morning and after feeding the dog and the 2 cats walk the 75 yards from my house, take off my shoes, go inside, enter the dark, cedar-smelling room, bow in the direction of both altars, the original hogan altar plus my Buddha altar (it's too dark to see them) and then I sit on a black cushion for 40 minutes, followed by 15 minutes or so of some kind of free form stretching or yoga--I am not sure what to call it.

The Buddha altar is a bookshelf which has an 8 inch high wooden statue of Siddhartha Gautama on it. Kay brought this statue back from Central America in 1963 or 64, having gotten it from a Guatemalan Indian woodcarver who carved it from a tropical hardwood faithfully making a 3-dimensional reality of a Life Magazine photograph of a Buddha statue. To round out a proper Zen altar, I also have a diminutive cheesy statue of Manjusri brandishing a comical sword of wisdom, and a cheap ceramic Guan Yin. Beside them sits an antique bronze school bell with a broken handle (yes, I know--if you are not at least 60 years old you don't have the slightest idea what I am talking about) that I removed the clapper from, that I signal the beginning of my meditation with using the clapper as a hammer to strike the bell from the outside. (I am not calling in a bunch of students from recess with fire-alarm clanging, so I don't need the bell to have its original form.)
Buddha altar

So I come out in the dark and sit, with a certain amount of ceremonialism, sometimes chanting the heart sutra and the three refuges.

Depending on the time of year, it may be daylight by the time the 40 minutes are up.

I hesitate to write about what happens during meditation. Maybe nothing more than a turning off of left-brain chatter and static and scheming. Maybe something else.

I have practiced Zen meditation for many years, and previously I had a place where I sat zazen in my house, but I like this better. I consider the space sacred to Kay's memory. It seems to be the right place to go in the morning.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Kleptocracy and its discontents

We may be seeing more here than a shocking failure of America to agree to the ransom demands, we may be seeing the end of days for the the vast and extraordinary collective hallucination of people crazed, like Lope de Aguirre floating down the Amazon, by visions of El Dorado. Right-wing America may be approaching the moment of reckoning when they (and we) are going to have to acknowledge, in the words of a Buddhist confession, "all our ancient twisted karma, from beginningless greed, hate and delusion," which in this case has led an army of Wall Street conspirators flying the skull and crossbones of the (since Reagan) completely unfettered and unregulated and untethered free market to help themselves to untold billions while reassuring the Republican base, also parties to delusion, that if they love America enough and hate their enemies enough, they can continue to buy something for nothing forever and ever, world without end, amen.

Some of those very people, and all of us who can remember how many houses (if any) we own, and everyone who works hard and who lives from month to month or week to week, and who buys only necessities, and those necessities sometimes with great difficulty, may be understandably angry at the turn of events that has led Wall Street and the Republican kleptocracy to deliver its extortion note to those of us who can keep track in our heads of the number of our real estate holdings. This includes most of the Republican base, of course. Let us pray that this shock will bring some of them to their senses.

"Pay us or we will kill your retirement plan," said the kleptocrats. Most of America said "screw you," liberals and conservatives alike. I was surprised. Most of America may have been ill-advised in that, but...maybe not. I think our retirement plans (if any) are going south anyway, and I am not sure that the taxpayers shoveling billions into the Swiss bank accounts of the folks who stealthily emerge from the back doors of the long black limousines that pulled up before the door of Morgan Stanley as they met to try to figure out how bilk us out of more, is a good idea, or will help us in the long run.

It seems to me that most of America rose in fury at the extortion note, and this scared the bejeezus out of many of the House members, who are all up for reelection.

But I think a more muted ransom note will reappear in a few days, and its demands will not be as extreme--at least not overtly--and probably a few more congressmen will be coaxed into voting for it.

From what I have read, a lot of economists don't seem to think this will actually help our real economy, what is left of it, but I am not myself qualified to judge. But I think I am qualified to judge that it will shore up the stock prices of the financial sector long enough for the major players to bail, as they say, out, and put their rescued monies into a safe European currency, or if worse comes to worst, gold in a Swiss safe deposit vault.

Whether we have a bailout or not, we all may end up living more simply. This would not have to be a bad thing, though it would be a lot more agreeable to the poor if some of the grotesque and ill-gotten wealth of the kleptocracy were redistributed downward.

I know. I know. But one can always dream.


Update: As we all now know, the Congress was ultimately stampeded into passing the bailout bill, and the recipients apparently are bent on using a good deal of the money for executive bonuses, and to pay dividends as if these companies had made a profit.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Ubi sunt

Ancient chant
“Ubi sunt”

Where be’th they, beforen us weren?

Where have they gone, who went before,
Who followed the hounds, forevermore?
Whose falcons turn and stoop* no more,
Their woods and fields now they lie within,
And we must become, as they have been;
As they are now so we shall be...

daffodils in the Red Rock Cemetery

This poem belongs to a genre popular both in Latin and vernacular languages in the Middle Ages, "ubi sunt" (where are they now) verse. I started with the idea of translating a well-known Middle English poem, whose first line I have retained, but what you see is as far as I got.

* "stoop" is a falconers' term for the hawk's descent on its prey. I considered using "swoop" but thought it too hackneyed. A good friend of mine with excellent literary taste told me I made the wrong choice. She now lies within the woods and fields herself, so I know I wrong her by ignoring her view. Nevertheless, it is here as I wrote it, unfinished.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Birdwatching at Hueco Tanks

A note of explanation: This story, like several others, for many years had a home on a University of Texas computer which very recently was taken out of service, and without much warning. So I have uploaded a few of them (non-fiction, more or less) to a new home on this blog. Be forewarned they are long, unlike most blog entries, probably too long, but by way of excuse I will say they were not originally written with a blog in mind.

It must have been about 1976 that I drove on impulse late one night from El Paso to Hueco Tanks, a place sacred to the Indians, a great pile of fissured granite-like igneous rock called syenite, rising several hundred feet out of the blow-sand and creosote bush of the surrounding desert. The rocks at Hueco Tanks --which is a redundant rancher Spanish-English term meaning "waterhole waterholes"--collect hidden pools of rainwater in natural cisterns. The crevices in the rock also conceal uncounted Indian paintings. The paintings mostly depict the gods and powers of American Indian dreamtime. I used to go there often, never knowing what I would find. One winter I had seen three whistling swans in the pond by the ruins of the old Butterfield Stage station. I didn't know where they came from, or where they went. They were a thousand miles from their normal range.

Near the ruins of the stagecoach station at Hueco Tanks is a deep rock shelter where a 49er on his way to California had written, "watter hear" on a boulder. Behind the boulder was a deep pool which supposedly has never gone dry. In this same shelter are Indian pictographs, white painted figures in the Apache style, dancing lewdly. The sign on the boulder always pleased me, the trace of a man bound for California, seeking his fortune, now fixed timelessly on the wall along with the depictions of Indian water-spirits. I believed the traveler who painted the watter sign had become, momentarily and unknowingly, a devotee of one of the now nameless desert rain gods which had faded into the stone, almost invisible, but which are not yet gone.

I got to Hueco Tanks late. It was after midnight as I pitched my tent in the nearly empty campground. I was vaguely aware of the remote silent spasm and shudder of lightning in the darkness beyond the Sacramentos. Cerro Alto loomed black in the glowing scurf of stars to the east. I imagined the clatter and shouts of the old Butterfield stage coach crossing the dry wadis between Cerro Alto and Hueco Tanks, but imagination was overcome by the rumble of jet aircraft blinking a mile overhead, slotted into their approach to the El Paso airport with a noise that reduced the power of nature and seemed sufficient to drive the Apache mountain spirits back into their caves.

Feeling kind of lonely for my wife, I went to sleep. New rumbles began to intrude on my dreams, and I awoke to the report of a sharp electric bull-whip nearby, then another, followed by rolling kilotons reverberating through the sky. A heavy rain began to fall, and my tent started to make alarming moves in the wind. I heard the instant of static before the hard bang of a lightning strike a hundred feet away, just as the wind carried the rain-fly of my tent off into the darkness. I grabbed my sleeping bag and sprinted for my car. By the time I got there I was drenched. I sat up for half an hour and watched the show. The mountain spirits had now come out. Sheets of water cascaded off the glittering syenite of East Mountain, and the small trees of the campground heaved with lightning-lit stop-action thrashing motions in the wind. Eventually I went to sleep in my cramped, damp car.

In the morning, at dawn, I looked out on the campground and discovered that there was one other person there, whose tent had survived intact. I made some coffee. I had a sudden memory of some Tibetan-style Buddhists who, a year or two before, had marched here under the full moon, all night, 25 miles, threading the dunes from El Paso with banners, bells, chants, and prayer wheels, and arrived at Hueco Tanks to meditate as the sun rose. I had greeted them with coffee and doughnuts.

The guy in the tent finally woke up and came out, blinking and yawning. I offered him some coffee.

"That was quite a storm" I said.

"What storm?" he replied. I pointed out fallen branches from the scrub oak trees, the wet sand and some pools of standing water.

"Well I'll be damned."

We chatted a while. The guy turned out to be a serious birder.

"I do some bird watching myself," I said, pleased to learn of this commonalty of interests. After he discovered I liked birds, the guy warmed up to me, told me his name and where he was from. I forget now what it was, but let's say it was Lenny. In fact, in may have been Lenny. While I ate breakfast Lenny walked about the campground with a tape recorder and a microphone attached to what looked like a portable satellite dish, recording morning bird sounds.

"This is what I do for vacation. I'm from Cincinnati. I got three weeks off and I go birding every summer".

What he did was drive around the country taking photographs of birds and recording their calls.

"I drove all the way from Dallas yesterday. Long drive. I've never been in the desert before. This place was recommended. It's in my birdfinder."

"Well, you missed the swans," I told him, "but I can take you to where there's a pair of prairie falcons that nest on West Mountain. It's about a quarter mile from here. I can take you there if you want."

He liked the idea, so off we went, Lenny lugging binoculars and a camera and several lenses and maybe his tape recorder, although I remember he left his parabolic dish behind. On the way he got pretty excited about seeing a verdin.

I showed him a horned toad on the path. He didn't pay much attention to that. I told him about the paleo-Indians hunting giant bison here at the end of the last ice age, and about the archaic people who gathered mesquite beans and hunted mountain sheep here for thousands of years after the giant bison were gone. Not a flicker of interest.

"Lenny, the reason your boots are making that crunching sound is that you're walking over broken pots made by Indians who lived here eight hundred or a thousand years ago. Archeologists call those people the Jornada Mogollon."

His eyes suddenly betrayed a fear that I was not a birder at all, but some kind of impostor, a maniac who was going to force him to go on the wrong tour. He changed the subject back to our destination.

"How much farther?" We talked for a while about the orioles in the yuccas. It was getting hot, and I took him into a rock shelter so we could drink from our canteens in the shade.

I pointed to a big Jornada mask painted stencil-like on the wall. "What the hell is that?" Lenny exclaimed, alarmed at having been lured into some kind of ancient cult center, no birds around anywhere. I told him that the mask probably represented one of their gods.

"Shit. You mean people lived in this place, and believed in that kind of stuff? Pretty weird, pret-ty weird," he said.

"I'm an atheist" he added, as an afterthought.

Finally we were below West Mountain where the falcons had their nest. We watched a while from a crevice near the base of the rock.

"There they are," he said. He had spotted them before I did.

We watched the falcons play, whirling 500 feet above over the great syenite dome in front of us. The birds would drop heavy as rocks several hundred feet and then suddenly soar upward, riding the wind flowing over the stone. Lenny started setting up his tripod and his big telephoto lens. I just watched. He began taking pictures. A few feet away a three foot tall white horned god danced on the rock. I didn't show it to him.

White horned figure at Hueco Tanks

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New Mexico Epiphanies

A note of explanation: This story, like several others, for many years had a home on a University of Texas computer which very recently was taken out of service, and without much warning. So I am now in the process of uploading to this blog the various stories (non-fiction, more or less) that I previously had on the deceased server. Be forewarned they are long, unlike most blog entries, probably too long, but by way of excuse I will say they were not originally written with a blog in mind.

Apache spirits


In the early 1970's New Mexico was full of crazy people; young crazy people, religious seekers, wide-eyed, full of incoherent certainties, overcome with bliss, living in tumbleweed communes in half-finished geodesic domes and Volkswagen buses up on blocks; old crazy people, retired military coots living in small, out-of-plumb trailers rocked by highway blow-by on the outskirts of Deming; middle-aged crazy people, meditating cross-legged under the tutelage of gurus with scandalous sex lives; migratory crazy people, on every remote and unlikely roadside in the state with thumbs out, dressed in blankets and robes and beads and feathers, and when you gave one of them a ride on Interstate 25 a few miles outside of Truth or Consequences he would fix you with his personal stare and tell you his tale, which would last until he got out, often in a place as desolate as where he got in. Crazy people of all ages, doing, as they said, their own thing, of whom I was one; and all these people doing their own thing had but one thing in common, besides their derangement, and that was that they had no way to make a living. It is hard to imagine now.


In the winter time we would go up to see one of the great events of the world, the January congregation of birds at Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge on the Rio Grande north of Elephant Butte Reservoir. The main attraction was the cranes. Cranes are awesome fliers; for instance they reportedly having been seen high over the Himalayas by observers themselves at 20,000 feet.

Bosque del Apache was the winter home of the greater sandhill crane, a noble bird (noble in the air, no bird is exactly noble on the ground), in enormous numbers, Canada geese, snow geese, waterfowl of all kinds, and a great array of other birds. In that one winter month, and only that month, usually, it all came together, and it was like being in some enormous outdoor aviary with the wire mesh extended to heaven, miles high and invisible, and birds everywhere, unafraid. In the late afternoon, after feeding, the cranes would fly, for no reason but pleasure as far as I could tell, from then until nearly dark. They bent their legs, sprang aloft, and bugled, beat upward in long pulsing V's a mile into the sky, God knows how far, you saw them as specks finally in your binoculars, and they looked down on the mountains. Great multitudes of geese meanwhile slammed low overhead with a heavy whir like flung hammers, and honked, and through the din floated down the deep remote serpent voices of the cranes, a faint cathedral chorus of remote harmonic gurgling damped by 5000 feet of air, and ducks and blackbirds in vast aggregations mizzled the air in the distance, and the pheasants ran glittering in the underbrush. As the sun went down the cranes descended to earth, and all eyes were upon them.

Rock Art

One day my wife Kay and I drove out from El Paso to the Three Rivers Ranch 100 miles away. The ranch house, in the grassland below the White Mountain Wilderness in New Mexico, was baronial but seemed small measured by the splendor of distances off to the west and the great mountain to the east and the deep sky above, azurite-blue, mineral as the taste of stone.

Twenty miles west and a mile below was a long spill of flat black lava the size of Manhattan, and south of the lava flow were blinding white gypsum dunes that shone like snow in the light of the Tularosa Basin, and beyond them stood the bleak and rugged San Andres Mountains, sealed off in missile-range government quarantine, where mountain sheep thrived in the barren atmosphere of legendary buried treasure, and even beyond that, concealed on the other side of the range, were the River and the Jornada del Muerto, the Dead Man's Road; and beyond that was the sunset.

The view west was like an oblique-image satellite photo, differing only in the low angle, but not in the feeling of distance, and the sunset was like a sunset on Mars, sudden and violent and the stars coming out while the fireball melted down on the distant black rim of peaks.

To the east, eight miles away and 5000 feet above the ranch house was Sierra Blanca standing like a part of Montana somehow transported there by a god amused by the improbable. Its high reaches of spruce and fir bristled up to the timberline and above that was a thousand feet of tundra and snow; the mountain was a vast mirage floating above the frozen lava of the basin flats and the brick-kiln desert floor of the Trinity A-bomb site.

Some people named Shepherd lived at this ranch, at the boundary of the Mescalero Apache reservation. It was a pretty big operation, and running it kept the Shepherds busy. The ranch had once been the property of Albert Fall, Warren G. Harding's Secretary of the Interior, who did time in federal prison for his part in the Teapot Dome scandal.

The Shepherds allowed a group of archaeologists to conduct a dig and live in a remote cabin on the edge of the property. We knew some of the archaeologists. The Shepherds hospitably showed us around their place and invited us to camp in their private campground which they guaranteed to be free of trash and bears, unlike the forest service campground farther up the mountain stream. They seemed kind of lonely, their social life consisting mostly of get-togethers with other ranchers at covered dish suppers once or twice a month. They would tell us neighborhood gossip about people who lived 90 miles away, surrounded by solitude. The ranch people thought of themselves as a sort of aristocracy.

The Shepherds had their own prehistoric Indian rock art site on the ranch. It was a few miles from the big Three Rivers petroglyph site that belongs to the Bureau of Land Management. The privately owned rock art on the ranch was what we had come to see. The Shepherds showed us the way, and left us. There were five or six of us from El Paso along with several of the cabin archaeologists. We walked in the quarter of a mile from the fence after we parked our cars.

It was a beautiful day, clear, bright, and about 70 degrees. And on every hand, from every direction on the barren ridge, rising like a wind, came the dry urgent burr of rattlesnakes. Everywhere, rattlesnakes. The noise came spilling from under the rocks, a sizzling chorus rising and thrashing and filling up the air like vertigo at the moment before unconsciousness.

Everyone was momentarily paralyzed. Where were the snakes? I couldn't see any. I poked ahead with my stick. Nothing happened. I began to walk slowly and carefully. I heard more snakes. But I couldn't see them. Nobody could see them. There was just the noise, which seemed to be coming up out of the earth. Everybody began poking the ground with sticks and moving slowly through the rocks. We began to go about our business, taking pictures of the rock art, as best we could, creeping and peering, and tapping and feeling our way with sticks like blind men.

The whole day I saw five or six rattlers, but I heard--how many? Scores? Hundreds? I have no way of knowing. It was a concert that filled the air around us as we spread out among the boulders looking for petroglyphs. The sound would subside if you stood still a while, but the snakes sensed it when you moved. If you stepped to another rock a shrill swelling buzz would lash the critical air about your feet, as your body reacted with involuntarily muscular recoil that was simultaneous with the shock wave of adrenaline. It is still not clear to me why, but I had no fear of the snakes, nor did anyone that day on the rock-art ridge. The snakes made everyone extremely alert. It was exhilarating. I was aware of my every step and every movement, like a circus high wire performer. A big western diamondback will hit your ankle like a spiked club.

I lost track of time walking through this ancient gallery, gazing at strange figures drawn on the rock, traces of a lost world. The rattlesnake sound has totally merged in my memory with the frets and spirals and horned gods graved onto the stone, the ancient signs and spirits cracked into the integument of rock, the far-off view of the dark shaggy forest higher up below the snowy peak, and the transparency of immense distances, seen through the clear dense air of congealed danger as I walked in slow-motion through the field of fangs.

"Hey, man, that was great!" said one of the archaeologists, when we got back to our cars.

The Fountain of Youth

Kay and I were driving down a dirt road somewhere in central New Mexico looking for a hot spring. We had a crude map with x marks the spot drawn near the bank of a small river or creek. We went a good many miles without seeing a human soul, until we came to what appeared to be the place. A few pinyons and junipers studded the arid pasture land around us. In the distance were dark mountains. We disturbed some ravens when we got out of the car, and they flapped and glided away, down the creek, leaving hoarse cries hanging in the air. The day was sunny but the altitude gave the morning air a chill.

There by the bank of the creek was a cement blockhouse like one of these mysterious small concrete utility buildings you see beside the road which have no windows and which always have something inside that makes a humming noise. This building had no windows, and the door was padlocked. We walked down to the creek and at the bank were several pools, suspected hot springs. One of them was steaming.

Like most of the hot springs I have ever seen, these pools were murky and full of green scum. I put my finger in the steamer. It was hot as hell! "You idiot!" I said to myself. I blew on my finger and waved it around for a while, and then I dipped another finger, more cautiously, in the next pool, which was a lot scummier. The temperature in this one was also too hot, but bearable. We were about to take off our clothes and immerse ourselves naked in the pool when we heard the noise of a car coming. We watched as a battered pick-up came clattering up, and an old man got out, who walked up and said "Y'wanna use my bath house?"

"Your what?"

"My bath house" he said, pointing at the little concrete blockhouse.

"Uh, Gosh, that's nice of you but we don't want to keep you from using it."

"No problem for me. No sir. I can just wait till you're gone. I'm retired. I can wait as long as I want."

He said this while unlocking the padlock. He opened the door and showed us the interior. Bare concrete. There was a standard suburban bathtub at one side of the little room, and a little table to put your clothes on. Since there was no electricity, I asked if he bathed in the dark.

"Nah, you got to keep the door propped open to take the waters." He leered at Kay as he thought about a woman taking the waters with the door open.

"I been takin' the waters here for 18 years." he said. "It's what keeps me alive. I bathe in it," he said as the turned on the faucet, "and I drink two, three glasses a day. It's the fountain of youth. Try it." He had taken a chipped ceramic-coated tin cup from the wall, and rinsed it out a couple of times, and filled it up and offered it to Kay. She sipped at it tentatively.

"It tastes very healthy," she said. I tried it and it tasted kind of bitter, as I recall.

The bathtub was full.

"I guess I'll try it," said Kay. "Here, let me change. She had a swimsuit wrapped up in a towel, just in case, and she closed the door to put it on.

While she was changing in the dark, the old man confided in me that the place had been ruined.


"Yep. People comin' in here goin' skinny dippin' and cavortin' around naked as blue jays. Men and women together settin' in them pools full of crud, without a stitch of clothes on. Damnedest thing I ever saw."

"Do they come here often?"

"Oh, yeah. I come here every day, and two, three times a month I'll find a bunch of folks sittin' naked in them pools." He paused, reflectively. "Mmh, mmh. Damnedest thing I ever saw.

Kay opened the door.

"Just step right into the tub" the old man said. "I have the spring tapped so it comes out just right. It ain't too hot."

Kay got in. We watched her, with interest, a woman in a one-piece bathing suit taking a hot bath without soap in a concrete bathhouse in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico.

"How do you like it?" the old man asked.

"It's, uh, fine, just fine." She ignored her audience, closed her eyes and soaked, and the old man stared.

"How old d'yuh think I am?" he asked no one in particular.

I looked at him and guessed. "Oh, seventy five or so." He was delighted.

"Nope, older'n that. Almost eighty-four. Eighty-four next October. I would have been dead fifteen years ago 'cept for these waters. These are healin' waters. I used to be a sick man. Would you believe it? But I'm as good now as I was thirty years ago. I expect I'll live to be a hundred." He said all this without once taking his eyes off Kay, soaking in his tub. He ran a cup of water from the faucet and drank it.

Lonely Rancher

It was 23 outside and had stopped snowing. Low fast hanks of ragged tannic discolored clouds the color of faded bloodstains still looked like snow, but now and again leaked sudden sunbeams dying away like searchlights. Occasional breaks revealed a lacquered turquoise sky and the rounded white distant mother of pearl knob of Sierra Blanca.

We drove a frozen mud road north and west. Billy the Kid country. Forgotten atrocities of the Lincoln County War clung lingering to the rocks. The Capitan mountains lay to the south in a haze of blue distance. We passed the boundary stones of the ranch. To the west was Carizzo Peak, to the south was Tucson Mountain, both about 5 miles away.

We walked for 15 minutes in the dry cold hissing grass below the mountain forests, toward the ridge. A bull in the distance raised his head and bellowed and pawed his turf. The ridge was covered with piñon and juniper and oak scrub. Beads of sap frozen hard as amber on the pine bark leaked aromatic molecules into the random bitter wind, the odor like needles in the air.

We came to the graven rocks; I stood and stared at the glyphs, evidence in stone of the thinking of shamans, Siberian and ancient, an era of glacial time built like a stone bluff of air between me and them; I took futile photographs across the boundaries of time.

We went back to the ranch house, a low rock and timber edifice where an obsessed rancher lived, visited on Sundays by his sons. His house had a large, closed off room full of memories of his wife who had moved away. There was more to his story than I would know.

The rancher had filled a void in his life by becoming an apostle of grass and fire. "Burn the forests" he said. "Let the fire-climax prairie vegetation under the mountains prevail". The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management had practiced another creed, and had allowed the alien cold forests and to spread down out of the mountains. Worse yet the juniper and piñon had infested grasslands even below the big pine trees. He made speeches all over New Mexico advocating fire. "Burn the trees".

We sat before the fireplace, warmed by his hospitality, and he threw another log on the fire, as he showed us albums with photos of the antiquities of his ranch. Snow was again falling outside. The fire roared in his chimney.

Conceptual Breakthrough

I would sometimes drive my old Plymouth over the low bridge that crossed the river in El Paso below the smokestack of the Asarco copper smelter, on my way into the desert to the west. The bridge connected Texas and New Mexico right above the point where the river veered a little and became the Mexican border. I would drive past the shantytown full of adobe huts with the stucco falling off which sprawled at the foot of Mount Cristo Rey, up along the state highway that runs along the upper edge of the alluvial terrace on the right bank of the river till I got to a gravel road that leads out into the desert, that takes you to Columbus, New Mexico, about 60 miles away, the site of Pancho Villa's invasion of the United States. There was a maze of dirt roads out into the volcanic fastness west of El Paso, and you had to be careful you didn't make one of many wrong turns which would take you, eventually, to the end of a diminishing rutted track which inexplicably played out as if the original trailblazing jeep had somehow gotten lighter and lighter and eventually ascended to heaven at the very point where you were now stranded, stuck in the sand at the end of the road.

First I would drive in the sandy tracks used by the border patrol and smugglers which meandered back south toward the border, and then when I got to the abandoned railroad I would keep the old roadbed except when I had to make a detour where it had been washed out. The railroad paralleled the border and for much of the distance was only a few yards from the border itself, which was generally unmarked on the ground, though clearly there on the map.

I would drive all the way to Columbus along the old right of way. I always threw a shovel into the car in case I got stuck in the sand, but I never did. The railroad right of way was heavily patrolled by the federal authorities. I usually saw two or three border patrol trucks. Otherwise it was pretty desolate country, just sand and yuccas and occasional stretches of gravel. To the north was Mount Riley, which was a dark barren solitary peak, and near it were some old volcanic outcrops and lava flows and craters, a jumble of lava slag where, many years ago one of Kay's students, a retired soldier, said he rolled away a rock partially concealing a cave and found a family of mummified Indians, and all their goods. He rolled the rock back into place, and was never able to find it again. He went been back, looking, many times. I believed him, and had tried to find the cave myself. I never found it.

Around the turn of the century there were some escaped camels around Mt. Riley, apparently surviving a few years among the shell-shocked, blasted and rubbly dead brown volcanic rocks. I half expected to one day find the windpolished bones of a dromedary among the rocks.

To the south of the railroad right-of-way was Mexico and a seemingly endless stretch of sand and yucca.

Above the desert stood a raptor sky, usually empty of clouds, a domain of hawks, and an occasional vulture which would circle down slowly, gliding down closer into some heavy scent as it examined the ground for the quiet shape it sought.

Once, about 30 miles along the way, I came over a rise, and suddenly I beheld an enormous lake, which had never been there before. It was like a miracle. I was momentarily disoriented, thinking, irrationally, that I had taken a wrong turn and somehow driven all the way to Elephant Butte Reservoir.

But all it was, was a normally dry playa, or low flat place in the desert with no drainage, now no longer dry after a rainy spell, and covered by a shallow sheet of water, miles wide and inches deep. There were some waterfowl. In the distance were the Tres Marias, the Three Marys, landmark mountains Pancho Villa used to guide his troops on their raid. I found myself hollering and waving my arms, "Hooeeee!" the echo eventually startling some birds which rose whirling above this sudden shining inland sea, an ephemeral lake, almost a mirage. I felt like God had personally told me a joke. I understood, not for the first time, why new Mexico was full of loonies.