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

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