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.

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