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.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Monkeys in the Rain

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 in the next few days I will be uploading to this blog the various stories (non-fiction, more or less) that I previously had on the deceased server. Be forewarned they are rather long, unlike most blog entries, but by way of excuse I will say they were not originally written with a blog in mind.

It was sometime in the 1980s I found myself watching a group of several hundred Japanese snow monkey in a clearing in the south Texas brush normally inhabited only by javelina hogs, armadillos, and a few wary, lean, and thorn-scarred cows. Being unsuited for the climate, they seemed a bit scruffy, rheumy-eyed, and like most monkeys, they were disturbing in their habits and social arrangements, possibly because they reveal us as we do not like to think of ourselves. The monkeys were at a place (then) called the South Texas Primate Observatory, which, according to an articulate woman named Lou Griffin who showed visitors around, was about to go broke. (The tenure on this ranch of these monkeys, macaques actually, has always been a bit precarious, but I understand they are still there as of 2008.) Griffin gave us a brief history of the complicated events that led to founding of a monkey refuge in the Texas brush country. She impressed me with her dedication to primate research and to her animals. But funds had dried up. Rich oilmen had supported the project as a tax write-off, but the oilmen were all bankrupt now. The monkeys sat patiently waiting for their daily rations. They seemed dispirited, like they sensed that all was not well.

The monkeys would line up along the road as the pickup truck was driven slowly through the clearing and Lou threw out monkey chow. Occasional screeches and brief chases would erupt when hunger and opportunity would goad a low ranking monkey to try to eat out of turn. The clearing was overpopulated, and anything the monkeys could eat had been eaten. A few inedible forbs grew here and there. The highest ranking monkeys sat on the high branches of a dead tree that had been worn shiny and slick by climbing. The tree was at the edge of a mudhole. Lou said the monkeys were happy. Maybe they were; what do I know about monkeys? It was a lot better than a zoo. They were no cages and the ineffectual fence around the clearing had no function other than recreational climbing.

After feeding time, the monkeys on the dead tree sat still in the sun, looking out over the low canopy of guajillo, guayacan, blackbrush, and mesquite that extended, shimmering in the heat, an unbroken expanse, farther than they could see. They looked out over the small spiny trees and seemed puzzled and contemplative, like astronomers thinking about the origin of the universe.

Japanese researchers would come and play tape recordings of the calls of their original tribe of monkeys in Japan. Only the very oldest monkeys, who had been born in Japan, would respond to the Japanese calls. The researchers would play the calls to these monkeys in the name of science.

It occurred to me that the old monkeys could still remember the snows and slopes and trees of Mount Fuji, where they had once lived.

The calls that the old monkeys recognized probably bespoke pine trees and streams and Shinto temple incense.


That was about the time my daughter Eve wanted to see the jungle.


We got to San Jose after dark, in the rain, with a low ceiling. The lights of the city first flared abruptly 500 feet below, a blazing spill of jewelled lights filling the bottom of a black void, then we were engulfed again by a blur of fog throbbingly lit by our plane's own heartbeat lights. We broke out into the black air with the lights on the ground much closer. A tall, nervous man in some kind of clerical garb who smelled of garlic and sweat and who spoke bad English sat next to me and chewed on his fingernails and perspired heavily during the landing. We sat silently and concentrated on the rocking and clanking and groaning of aluminum, then a shocking carnival of lights broke out of the mist as my seatmate stiffened and sucked on his fist, then the lights were beside the plane, as we hit with a hollow whump followed by 2 or 3 seconds of a soaring bounce, then we were down, rolling into the hard roar of deceleration of another safe landing, as my seatmate leaned back into his seat with a sigh and closed his eyes, praising God.

It was a family vacation: Kay, Eve, Anna, and myself. It was our intention to visit the lowland rain forest of the Costa Rican Caribbean coast.

Our cab driver had never heard of the place we wanted to go to spend the night, a shabby downtown hotel full of alcoholic American and European retirees, old men with toadskin nicotine faces stubbled with whiskers, and a few women of indeterminable age with the complexion of dolls and lips painted like rose petals, enveloped in dim acrid breathtaking clouds of perfume and cigarette smoke. All of them were pale and spindly as cave insects, and seemed to be permanent denizens of the lobby. They stopped talking to stare at us as while we haggled over the price of a room with the night clerk.

The rooms were all open at the top, so you could hear almost everything that went on in the hotel, which had the acoustics of a fine concert hall. It was poorly ventilated. You could hear a fart sonorous as a trombone in the room at the end of the hall, and not long after you could smell it. The residents enjoyed the same flavorful smoky richly seasoned air over and over for days on end. They were a kind of biological community, a symbiotic super-organism, with a common ear, all joined at the lungs, sharing rebreathed molecules of air and whatever other intimacies they had, mostly sudden anguished outcries during bad dreams, and occasional noises of purchased sex when guys would come in off the street with their girls. The room next to us got rented late that night. I heard the man put his pocket change on the bureau. Clomp went his shoe, then clomp again, then his companion took off her stiletto heels which clicked to the tile floor. The bed creaked heavily. She giggled. He murmured. You could hear them breathe, and murmur, and giggle. Then the breathing got heavier and the murmuring stopped as the bed creaks got louder and faster. Little feminine whimpers of sexual pleasure, possibly simulated, floated in the darkness like small intra-ocular flashes of light. After that they were both quiet for a couple of minutes, and then they got up and had a smoke. He went out to piss in the common bathroom down the hall, sounding like a horse urinating in a puddle of water. It was hard to sleep.

In the morning we took a taxi which plunged like a bull through the narrow streets filled with daring pedestrians, who leapt aside at the last second like bullfighters, to the old train station. It was early and the station was empty except for the inevitable young German tourist, insouciant, tan, fit, and filthy, asleep on the grimy tile floor using his backpack for a pillow.

We boarded the train down to Limón.

The rolling stock was very ancient. To cross to another car was slightly dangerous. You had to step over the cast iron couplings which gnashed in a massive metal ball and socket crash and groan, slamming and unslamming, a few inches below your foot.

Outside were thousand-foot nearly vertical mountain walls covered with tropical vegetation above brawling pale chocolate froth rivers far below, distant mumbling stormgutters gravelled with boulders out of the gravity-slides of remoter mountains. The rivers smashed down broken rock gorges to the whitewater stream below us destructo-heaving with standing waves reported to toss kayaks like matchsticks. Other passengers looked out the left side of the train at the white cows on shining sunlit steep green hillsides below a deeper green, almost black, of the tropical forest on the higher slopes, with long beards of Spanish moss and lianas hanging from the branches of the high and massive white-trunked trees.

[Note: this story was written in the 1980s. Sadly, this wonderful train is no longer in operation.]


That night in Limón we abandoned our stifling rooms, went out and had a late meal at a Chinese restaurant, mistakenly thinking that Chinese food in Costa Rica would be somewhat different from Costa Rican food, which is greasy and bland. Two young men and a boy at the table next to us ate a big meal and conversed with the waitress and savored their dessert, and when they had eaten all their food--they seemed to have typically enormous Costa Rican appetites--called the waitress over and requested coffee, and she went to get it.


The waitress screamed, and all the customers stood up and ran over to the door.

"What the hell...?" I exclaimed pointlessly to no one in particular, before I realized that the three diners next to us had bolted from their chairs, overturning them, and had run out without paying. There were dishes all over the floor.

The waitress and the cook gave chase, but two of the criminals had run one way and one had run another, and all escaped. The Chinese owners appeared, the whole family, out from the kitchen, all carrying meat cleavers, and waving them, and began berating the waitress in Chinese-accented Spanish for allowing the getaway. One of the customers shouted back, "Hey, it was not her fault, there wasn't any way she could have stopped them." Everybody talked about it and milled around still carrying napkins staring at the scene of the crime, the remains of the meal, the sidewalk escape route. The cook gave a wicked chop to the door frame with his cleaver as he went back to the kitchen.

We walked back to the hotel in the exuberant tropical coast-town night.

An extraordinary air of tropical putrefaction and decay enveloped Limon, a wonderful fragrance of flowers and rotten fruit and the heavy sour perfume of exhaust smoke of untuned diesel buses.


The next day we hired passage up-coast on a motorboat.

It was the rainy season. For two hours we rode a shock-wave of noise and a plume of spray through the monsoon deluge. Heavy raindrops stitched our bodies like machine-gun fire as our small very fast open boat slammed and jolted like a skipped rock up the river through the jungle north of Limon. Interconnected rivers and canals form a waterway that extends northwest to Nicaragua.

When we arrived at the village of Tortuguero, our skin stung and our clothes drenched, we clambered onto a muddy bank near the loose collection of huts that spread out a quarter of a mile along the canal, and hauled our waterlogged stuff inside an open-air pavilion serving as a dance-hall and bar. Water began burbling quietly from the suitcases onto the floor. One man sat drinking beer watching the rain.

The village lies in a clearing between the river and the ocean.

We walked across the village and took a room in a cheap hotel by the sea. We hung out our clothes to dry on the porch. Pretty soon the rain stopped and the sun came out.

Children were playing on the black sand beach.

We watched the sea come pounding and foaming in. Occasionally it surged unexpectedly in a white fizzing line of suds chasing the children up the sand. The children shrieked as they retreated. Eve joined some robust barefoot little girls who were shouting and running, who were not at all bashful and who fingered Eve's clothes and examined her hair and laughed and asked long rapid-fire questions in Spanish, which we partially answered in Eve's stead before they interrupted us and each other with more questions. Meanwhile I noticed their mother, a brown, thin, beautiful barefooted woman with long black loose hair wearing a billowing patched skirt, who never looked directly at us. She was fishing. She had a hand line and a bucket containing some small fish she was using for bait, and beside the bucket were two big fish that she had caught, covered with sand and pulsing feebly. She pulled in the stout no-nonsense nylon twine that was was using to fish with, rebaited the hook, twirled the weighted line around her head like a sling and launched it seaward a hundred feet in a high arc, the bait flashing epicycles in the sun as it orbited the weight, into the surf. She held her line lightly and pulled it in with the attentiveness of a blind person reading Braille. "Come back here," she said quietly, without looking at them, when her girls got too far away. "Do you go to school?" Kay asked them. They fell down on the sand in feigned hysterical laughter. "Of course we go to school. Over there." They pointed at an obvious school building 200 yards from the sea. "Everyone goes to school."

They got up and grabbed Eve. "Come to school with us" they said. "Come to school with us tomorrow. Come see our house."

We heard their mother murmur "No, mijitas."

"Well, come to our school tomorrow, then."

Kay said for Eve, "She has to leave, she doesn't have time to go with you tomorrow. Sorry."

Eve ran off with them to play at walking over a plank over a big hole someone had dug in the sand. We watched the surf. We watched the woman as she fished. The woman looked at the clouds on the horizon. Suddenly her fishline was throbbing and jumping and cutting back and forth through the waves, and she was pulling it in, hand over hand, and then she darted into the surf to nab the fish, which was about a foot long. She removed the hook, threw that fish along with the two previous ones, into her pail. She rolled up her line, called her children, and she marched away carrying her family's evening meal in a bucket. Her children followed behind. She never spoke to us or met out eyes.

Her children called back, as they left, "you should be in school, Evita."

After supper we sought out Damma, the guide who had been recommended to us. He lived in a small neat 3 room house built on stilts. He invited us in. He was a stocky, friendly man in his late fifty's, a Miskito Indian from Nicaragua. He spoke a sing-song Caribbean English. When he found that we were interested in having him take us on a trip into the jungle, he took out a photo album, with pictures that had been sent to him by satisfied customers, and showed them to us. We examined his blurred and treasured photos of past expeditions; Damma holding a dead fer-de-lance; Damma hacking at a vine with a machete; Damma in his dugout canoe, and so forth. "How did you get the name 'Dama?' " I asked (I was puzzled by the name, thinking it was the Spanish word dama, which means "lady".)

"Damma is a Miskito name, means 'old man.' The old man that give me that name said to me, 'when you get to be old they call you Damma so I'll give you that name right now so you won't ever have to change your name.' So I been Damma, Old Man, all my life."

Damma agreed to guide us the next day on a one-day trip up the Rio Tortuguero in a dugout canoe.

The village had come alive after the rain. Boys began splashing their game across the village soccer field, the ball occasionally spurting in unpredictable directions from a tangle of flailing legs in an explosion of muddy water and shouts.

Before dark there were distant thunderhead anvils illuminated by the setting sun far offshore in the east. Fog lay in on the beach to the north.

We appeared at dawn at the canal, and helped Damma launch his canoe. He had hewn the canoe himself from a big tree trunk. We pushed away from the bank and paddled, using paddles Damma had sawn and whittled, and stroked silently across the two-hundred-yard wide canal into a narrow channel of the Rio Tortuguero. The water was clear and cool, the trees high, the understory dense.

The silent river looked almost black. I was surprised to find that the water was so clear I could see the bottom of my oar when I pushed it as far down as I could reach. "It is the bottom that is black, not the water," Damma explained.

We heard only birds and howler monkeys. We saw a striped bittern Damma called a tiger heron nearby, stalking fish. We saw a raccoon stalking the heron, sneaking along a branch near the bird. We accidentally saved the heron's life when we tried to take a photograph and scared away the bird, which never saw the scowling mask of its enemy three feet away.

The shadowy forest stood high above us, dim in the rain. The tallest trees were covered with purple flowers. They must have been 150 feet high. We paddled upriver, laboring against the current.

We saw some howler monkeys, sitting like small, sodden, very old people with tiny faces wearing shabby fur coats and lost in thought, bundled in the rain in some high trees. Damma made howler monkey noises to encourage them to look around and hoot and maybe move, but they ignored us. "Them monkeys cold because of the rain. When the sun come out they start movin' around," said Damma.

A couple of miles upriver, we pushed into a small channel, one of a maze of channels. Anhingas bent their serpentine necks to look at us. Jaans pattered with flashes of red and yellow along the water hyacinths. Spoonbill herons tilted in the shallows.

It cleared and the sun came out occasionally. Below us in the shallow clear water we saw big ghostly red shapes, red snappers. I saw a lizard which ran across the top of the water, or seemed to. Damma said "Oh, that is the Jesus Lizard." I am not sure whether he was pulling my leg. We saw intensely bright iridescent blue butterflies, their cut-mica-fragile mirror-finish wings beating like a silent popping of flashbulbs, so shiny it hurt your eyes.

We stopped at a small opening in the understory by the river. It was a path. We got out and Damma led us into the forest. The river became invisible behind us by the time we had gone 15 feet. We were in deep shade, with 150 feet of vegetation above us. The plant growth from the canopy down to the ground was luxuriant but not benevolent. We discovered the existence of palmetto shrubs with 3 inch long needle-sharp spines. "Oh, them called 'prickles' " said Damma. He showed us a hornet nest which emitted a rising hum like a small dangerous machine as its inhabitants assumed battle stations and warmed up their wings, under a leaf we were about to push aside.

"Have you ever been afraid of anything in the jungle, Damma?"

"Oh, yes. I been attacked by a jaguar. I shot him. But if you don't have no gun, you in bad trouble with the jaguar. He just grab your machete right out of your hand with his teeth, then he crack your neck. But let me show you how you get rid of the jaguar if you don't got no gun."

He cut a bunch of spiny palm leaves with a stroke of his machete and waved the leaves in my face. I became the jaguar for demonstration purposes. "You mix him up, the jaguar. You push them leaves at him. You shake them leaves. You make him blink, and then you stick that jaguar with the point of the machete." I blinked. He lunged. "Then you do it again. And again till he lose some blood and get weak. Then you cut him with the machete, chop open his head." This was all simulated for us, animatedly, as he spoke.

We made our way back to the canoe, walking in the inch-deep water which flowed in a clear sheet across the jungle floor.

We ate our lunch in the canoe, then started drifting back, with the current, so the half day of strenuous paddling was over. We saw more monkeys, as we were going back. This time they were searching for new leaves, groping down to the very ends of the branches which would begin to droop dangerously with the weight of the limber-armed animals who descended like sandbags hanging from pulleys; the branches would rebound stripped of leaves when the monkeys would let go at the last second before catastrophe as they swung to a new branchlet, all the while stuffing leaves into their mouths and chewing with satisfied grunts, combining their slow choreography of trapeze artistry with the serious-eating rhythms of a Salvation Army lunchroom. Their faces were impassive and they paid little attention to us.

"They eat mostly new leaf, wild fruits. But if they gets down into the banana, they eat up them banana quick-time."

We got back late in the afternoon. The sun was out and the day had gotten warm and pleasant.


I'll tell you honestly the trip up the river felt artificial. Like I hadn't really gone anyplace different. The malaise of the contemporary traveler.

Several times, on our canoe trip, we passed by a raft of hardwood logs chained together floating low in the water, slowly drifting toward the river's mouth.

Damma said, of the logs, "Well, they cut 'em somewhere up the river. Up in the mountains."

"How far back does the jungle go?" I asked Damma.

"Oh, I dunno, way back. Long way. All the way up to where the river start."

In actual fact, if Damma takes his clients too far upstream he will come to the end of the forest, and he will find himself canoeing past felled trees and smoking piles of brush, where the jungle has been replaced by banana plantations like those we saw from the train on the way down from the mountains, where each bunch of bananas was wrapped in blue plastic while still on the tree. Damma probably knew this.


Finally, I remember the faces of the monkeys, worried sentinals waiting for the end of the world. And I remember the woman fishing on the beach under the gaze of tourists, more of them every day, who halt and stare at her on the black sand as she fishes the thunder of a twilight surf roamed by sharks.

Sunset at Tortuguero, Costa Rica
Sunset at Tortuguero

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Four Takes on the Texas Coast

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 in the next few days I will be uploading to this blog the various stories (non-fiction, more or less) that I previously had on the deceased server.


The Palauans.

No one ever knew why they came to El Paso. Palau was then a U.S. dependency of some kind, and since the government paid for their schooling presumably they could have gone anywhere.

The Palauans had come to El Paso to study "construction trades" at El Paso Community College. Non-stop from Honolulu, they had dropped down out of the sky into the neon truckstop sleaziness of the desert city, never before having left their volcanic coral-rimmed islands in their lives, and my wife's ex-husband Odin, who had an affinity for displaced persons, took them out to his estancia to live. Odin was at that time teaching at El Paso Community College and living in a circular adobe house which he had built with his own hands in El Paso's Lower Valley down near Socorro. There the Palauans dwelled, outdoors by preference, on cots in the yard of the eccentric barnyard villa, bare chested in the hallucinatory heat with Odin's goats and geese and a guy who lived in a large hole in the hardpan yard, a man whose job in the army was to interrogate Vietnamese prisoners and who had become maddened with a need to excavate and had with Odin's permission dug himself a room below the ground, then another, deeper, and shored them up, with timbers, like a mine shaft, and had taken up residence there, still digging, a kind of troll with the goats trampling on his roof and the Palauans barbecuing chickens in the blinding light above his burrow. One year Odin lost a couple of goats, though happily no Micronesians, to a mountain lion that came down out of the Huecos.

They got their brackish water from a hand pump--Odin had no electricity at the time--and cooked their food on spits over a big communal fire pit. They had a roofless caracole adobe outhouse. This was what the Palauans thought America was like.

In El Paso they would sneak their canoe into the Franklin Canal, the main acequia that carried most of the water of the Rio Grande, and pole along spearing bullfrogs by flashlight, astonishing the local Mexicans who happened to see the frog-hunters in the reed-grown aqueduct.

Finally, when they had gotten desperately nostalgic for the sea, Odin had taken them down to the Texas Gulf Coast at Corpus Christi where they rented a boat and went fishing. They used flounder gigs to fish. They speared a hundred fish among them in the space of a couple of hours in the muddy tidal strands of the back bays between Padre Island and the mainland rushes of the King Ranch, and then took the fish back to their tarpaulin lean-to camp in the sand dunes and ate their catch, perhaps raw, perhaps cooked--I don't know--and with distended bellies enjoyed real happiness for the first time since getting on the plane to El Paso.

The second time they went to the coast I went too, this time to Mustang Island. The Palauans slept on the beach, really fierce looking dark people with South Sea cannibal hair styles, with spears. They had constructed nine-foot traditional Palauan spears since their previous trip. Their method was to wade out into the shallow flats and chase the fish. They would spy a school of fish, somehow, maybe from ripples on the water, and approach stealthily as close as possible and then suddenly run forward in the foot-deep water howling demoniacally, and hurl their spears 20 or 30 feet at the moving shadows. By the end of a morning they had a large assortment of speared fish overflowing a bushel basket in the sand at the water's edge.

The hook and line fishermen were aghast at the sight. "If it ain't against the law" one of them told me, "it sure as hell ought to be."


In 1528 on the morning of November 6 by the Julian Calendar, Cabeza de Vaca, the Treasurer of the Narvaez expedition, coasting in an unseaworthy open boat made of materials salvaged from the ruin of Narvaez's march inland in Florida, crowded with men dying of hunger, thirst, scurvy, malaria, and hypothermia, landed in the surf of an unknown coast against a stiff cold wind out of the north. The unknown coast was Texas. They were trying to reach a place called Panuco, in Mexico, and did not come ashore by choice. They were too sick and exhausted to row any more, and they had run out of water. Narvaez, in another boat with more water, had abandoned them. The heavy seas brought them in and the surf pitchpoled the boat, dumping the men into the churning and hissing froth of the backwash. The booming line of breakers marched against the dunes that arced in a long curve west and south. All the men got ashore. The strongest of them, Oviedo, was sent to climb a tree growing near the dunes, to observe the lie of the land. "We are on an island," he said, when he came down from the tree.

Oviedo was then sent to explore beyond the sand hills, and found a settlement of friendly Indians, who followed him back to the beach. They slipped from behind their weedy dunes, a procession of a hundred bowmen with cane plugs in their ears, bringing fish and edible roots of some kind, and a gift of arrows. No one knows why they brought the Spaniards gifts. "So in return we gave them trinkets and bells," said Cabeza de Vaca. The Spaniards rested a day, slaked their thirst from puddles of rainwater, and loaded their boat, put their clothes in the boat to launch it, pushed the prow into the surf and pulled hard out through the breakers a distance of two crossbow shots, far enough that three of them drowned when a wave broke over the bow and the boat broached-to. The heavy curl of the surf tumbled the boat and broke it apart and smashed the men who clung to it. The survivors were cast ashore half-awash, freezing and naked. They found live coals in the ashes of the fire they had left in the dunes, and threw grass and sticks into it and huddled around it. When the wind died down in the evening, from the lagoon side of the island, the Karankawa bonepickers came back and stared amazed at the transformation, at these deathly men, saltbearded Spaniards with their skin flayed raw with sunburn and sand and chilblains. The Karankawas sat down and cried at the sight. They built big fires along the path to their huts, and when the Spaniards were safely in their village and warm, the Indians put on an all-night feast and dance in celebration of the deliverance from the sea of these strange pale men, "Though for us there was no joy, festivity nor sleep, waiting to see if they would kill us," said Cabeza de Vaca.

But the Indians treated them well. Soon the castaways got word that another of Narvaez's boats had foundered in the surf of the same island a few miles away. The survivors of that crew were living in the barren dunes. Both crews of Spaniards assembled and combined their salvaged planks and homemade nails and tried to rebuild a boat, but the only remaining boatwright died before it was finished. The new craft would not float, and they gave up on it. The four strongest men were then sent to walk to Panuco, in Mexico, a province governed by a presidio near present-day Tampico, and were never heard from again. Panuco obsessed the Spaniards. The name was always on their lips, and it ceased to mean anything except safety, refuge. What was Panuco? The northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire in New Spain, a small rivermouth garrison on the Gulf of Mexico, a cluster of wattle and daub jacals in the great expanse of thorny scrub of the northern Gulf lowlands. A river came out of the scrub and emptied into the sea. Somewhere upriver there were mountains. This much they knew of Panuco. None of them ever got there.

Cabeza de Vaca and some of his men went back to their friendly Indians. Others went various ways to live as best they could. Another spell of cold bad weather set in. Down the island there were five Spaniards slowly dying on the beach, and the living ate the dead until only one was left, and then he too died. "Since he was last, there was no one left to eat him," said Cabeza de Vaca. Cannibalism, if we are to believe Cabeza de Vaca, was unheard of among the Indians and caused them great unease when they found out about it. Curiously, three hundred years later the Indians of the Texas coast were notorious for eating human flesh.

Of about 80 men in the two boats all but 15 died within a few months. The Indians began to die also, probably on account of new diseases the Spanish had brought. The Indians were no fools, and saw the connection, and in fact debated whether to kill all the newcomers to rid themselves of pestilence, but in an excess of logic an Indian elder convinced the other Indians that the white men could not have brought such a plague: if they were powerful enough to bring it, they would not die of it themselves.

The Spaniards called this place Malhado, Bad Luck Island. The nomadic Indians came there in the winter to dig some kind of tuber--no one now knows what it was--from the baywater shallows. Malhado Island was one of the barrier islands of the Texas coast, most likely Galveston.

They eventually met up with a few survivors of Narvaez's boat and learned something of Narvaez's fate. Narvaez had landed on a calm shore farther down the Texas coast but had refused to leave his barely-seaworthy craft. He put his men out on the beach, where they slept. In the morning the boat, and Narvaez, were gone. Narvaez had rowed away in the night. We know he failed to reach Panuco. Had the castaways known that it might have eased their indignation. Somewhere offshore, sharks hung in the green Gulf water, turned and faced into the taste of prey the way weathervanes face the wind. Somewhere water slapped on rotting wood, and gleaming salt winds blew away the foam. Narvaez vanished without a trace.

Over the years the Spaniards drifted apart, died, and were killed. Finally there were four, including Andres Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Esteban, Castillo's black slave. All were now themselves slaves of the Indians except Cabeza de Vaca, who traveled up and down the coast trading shells for flint, arrows and face paint. Like the Indians, they ate oysters, when they could get them, and crabs, and fish, and deer, and, three times in all those years, buffalo. They ate seaweed. They ate lizards, snakes, and rodents, and probably the "very large spiders" the Indians ate.

They lived naked as the Indians, staring over the mirages of the sheetglare neaptide lagoons, their brows shining with trickling sweat beads as the summer sun pumped water vapor out of the sea. Over the lagoons pelican wingdips rode reflections in the sunset shallows, tern-plummets broke the sky into circles. The Spanish survivors saw their days gleam and fuse, and they gnawed roots and thin meat, watching the lightning fork and branch over the tide flats where the mealy roots grew, rainfronts riffling the water. They clawed up the back-bay oysters in the winter and picked dewberries from among the brambles in the spring. The mosquitoes swarmed black and numberless, and men lived hidden in the smoke of fires of green wood, preferring to cough in the smoke till their lungs bled rather than go out in the clear air with its needles of pain. "It is the worst suffering I know of" said Cabeza de Vaca, who knew many kinds of suffering. Some years they traveled farther down the coast, down to near present-day Victoria and Rockport, to gather pecans in the fall. Every year, in the summers, they migrated west and south to sustain themselves on the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.

Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and Esteban lived on the Texas coast for 6 years. They survived on this rude provender but were sustained by the iron will and bitter faith of Spain. Then, deciding it was time to return or die, they walked away from the Indians they were with, disappeared into the thorned brush which draws blood when you push through it, and were quickly forgotten, like jetsam and driftage here one year, then leaving no clues like shadows of clouds or shorebirds on a beach. They began a long march, high careful steps of the emaciated, cleaving the air before them with the gestured cross. Always hungry. They ate cactus. They ate mesquite beans. They crossed the Rio Grande. Seeking to circle the hostile Indians of the seacoast thorn-deserts of Tamaulipas, they walked west into the hotter and drier Chihuahua desert, into the ruinous slag mountains where the sunsets glowed like a forge.

They began to heal the sick and acquired a following, a crowd of Indians walking on a quest we cannot imagine toward the sunset. Eventually there were hundreds. What did these Indians think, trekking toward the west with these strangers, in this horde moving through the desert? The Indians looted each new village they came to, and the newly dispossessed would then join the march in hopes of, what? Regaining the bushel of corn or mesquite beans they had lost? "We traveled through many peoples of a multitude of languages, too many to remember. The Indians always plundered those they came to, regaining what they had lost. Thus they were content." Picture in your mind this vast throng of diverse Indians walking through the desert toward the sunset, led by lean bearded men who healed in the name of the Jesus and the Virgin. Nothing like this had ever happened before, or has ever happened since.

Walking west and north they struck the Rio Grande again, at the place where it meets the Rio Conchos coming out of Mexico. The people there lived in dusty villages, and grew corn, and went on trips to the north to hunt the buffalo part of the year. Cabeza de Vaca and his band went upstream for several days, and then across toward the Pacific somewhere south of El Paso. They walked around the north end of the Sierra Madre Occidental, and saw green stones they took to be emeralds, and turquoise, and were told that these treasures were found in the north, in high mountains. There were cities there, in the north, with large houses, they were told. This, of course, was true. These baubles, which had come from the Pueblo Indians who traded them in exchange for parrot feathers from the south, grew in attractiveness as time passed, especially in the memory of Esteban, which eventually led him to return here, where he met his death in the desolate stronghold of what Coronado called Cibola, in New Mexico.

When they finally met up with other Spaniards, slave-hunters, near Culiacan on the Pacific coast of Mexico, the mounted men on their bony horses just stared at the naked man on foot who had hailed them in the rusty accents of Castile. At first they did not return his greeting, but sat still in their saddles under their tattering slaver's ensigns. "They stayed there staring at me a long time, thunderstruck, and neither spoke to me nor drew near to make an inquiry," Cabeza de Vaca said. Who can blame them? The Narvaez expedition, for which you will remember Cabeza de Vaca was the treasurer, had disappeared eight years before in Florida, 2000 miles away.


In the summertime, four hundred and some-odd years later, when I was a boy, my grandfather Cummings would take off for a week or so to go fishing, and he and my grandmother would take me along, and sometimes my sister Linda, down to Rockport on the coast, hauling an old boat on a makeshift steel trailer welded together by my Uncle Norval. The trailer did not travel in a straight and docile path behind their ancient pickup, but had a life of its own, so we made the trip slowly, sometimes with caravans of angry vacationers in cars behind us, unable to pass, or frightened to.

We would camp out in a tent at a roadside picnic area. People could do that, and did, in those days. In back of the roadside park was a forest of oak trees. At Rockport the live-oaks grew right down to the water, and were stunted and deformed by the salt-spray. They had a sort of gnarled Japanese-garden look. I remember being aware of the beauty of the trees growing beside the bay water.

We would get up early in the morning, before sun-up, and eat breakfast, prepared on a Coleman stove. Then we would go down to the shrimpboat wharves and buy a pound of fresh shrimp for bait. Shrimp were cheap. We knew that some people, Cajuns perhaps, ate shrimp, but we used shrimp only as fishbait, the cost comparable to maybe that of a can of worms at a South Texas river bait stand farther inland. Nowadays, of course, the shrimp cost a lot more than the fish.

After getting our bait we would usually launch our boat, powered by a 5 horsepower outboard motor, at Goose Island State Park, and sputter it out a few hundred yards to some favorite rickety pilings, gray-weathered barnacled remains of piers long since destroyed by the sea. There we would begin fishing. We would pull the heads off the shrimp and throw the heads overboard to whet the appetites of the fish below, bait the hooks with the shrimp tails, and cast toward the sunrise, into the morning bay water, with our baitcasting rigs; then reel slowly in. Occasionally something would take the bait. Once in a great while we would catch a fish. We hoped to catch "trout", our name for the spotted weakfish, and we would keep gafftop and croakers and perch, if we caught them. All small perchlike fish were called "croakers" if they made croaking noises, otherwise they were deemed "perch." We rejected "hardheads," a catfish which had a stout, sharp dorsal spine. We knew from folk-knowledge that they were inedible. Gafftops, the other saltwater catfish, had longer and weaker dorsal fins and were considered delicious. We rejected exotica like sharks and dogfish and stingarees and eels and anything else we caught that looked strange. We fished for food.

If we got no bites bottom-fishing like this we would put a cork on the line and cast it out and watch the morning away for the bobble and disappearance of the float, followed by our exaggerated yank on the rod to take up enough slack to set the hook, but usually what happened was that the cork and gleaming empty hook shot out of the sea and over the boat, or into it. Occasionally we would land a fish this way too, the fish tumbling out of the sea in a high glittering arc into the boat and beating for a moment against the boat-bottom hull with the rhythms of a tap-dancer.

After we had run out of bait I would sometimes go swimming in the six-or-eight-foot deep water, clear enough to see the bottom sediments and seaweeds.

Then we would go back, winch the boat back onto the homemade trailer, and drive back to camp. We would have dinner about noontime, and my grandfather and grandmother would take naps on their army cots. I would walk out into the wilderness of scrub oak growing out of the Pleistocene beach sand behind the roadside park and hunt birds with a BB gun. Or I would just lie alone in the sand in the oak thicket as vaguely erotic pre-pubescent images of naked girls emerged from the woods, real as the hunting cries of the hawks. Alternatively I would dream of heroic military adventures. I remember hoping a new war would arise at the right time; I was aware that the Korean conflict might end before I was old enough to lead troops in battle.

In the afternoons we would go to the Copano Bay causeway, and fish off the rocks. Then we would go to the grocery store, and then back to the roadside park, where we would fry our fish, if we had any, and cook the rest of our supper, and as the sun went down we would light mosquito coils. Shortly after dark we would go to bed.

This trip was a highlight of my summer, for several years. But my grandparents took me fishing any time of the year, whenever they went, which was pretty often, on the Intracoastal canal, or at Port O'Connor or Seadrift. Seadrift was an ugly barren treeless little town with streets made of crushed oyster shells. We rarely caught fish there. The water was murky. Port O'Connor was a prettier town, where we fished off a long pier. We usually went fishing on the Intracoastal canal, which offered the closest access to the sea from where we lived. We would turn down a long shell road to reach it, and then we would walk up or down the canal for a mile or so, or if we had my grandfather's boat, drone slowly perhaps another mile in the wallowing and underpowered craft, and then we would fish, always with shrimp that we had bought at the shanty bait stand at the end of the shell road.

We would wake up a 3 or 4 in the morning in Victoria and drive in the dark past the DuPont plant where my father worked, leaving it behind us lit up in the distance like a ship, down to the coast 30 miles from town, where ideally we would be fishing at least an hour before the sun came up. The fish ceased to feed at mid-morning, or so we thought. We would wade out in the canal to where it dropped off deep, and there we would cast and cast till we ran out of bait. We never fished with artificial lures, except if we ran absolutely out of bait and the fish were biting, and even then we would prefer to have a perch or a hardhead, to cut up and use to bait our hooks.

Every once in a while a string of barges would come by, pushed by a tugboat. The barge string would draw down the water as it approached, and then create a small booming surf as it passed.

Behind us as far as the eye could see was rough coastal grass and sedge, marshy barrens that supported a few cows. In front of us was the canal, and on the opposite bank the artificial dunes of the spoil of the dredging. A few stunted bushes, some as high as a man, grew on the dunes.

Once, fishing on the canal, I stomped on a hardhead which had been flopping around after I caught it, to kill it so I could remove the hook, and the fish was suddenly stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I don't remember any pain, only surprise. I had driven the spine all the way through my foot. The wound got infected and I remember sitting in a doctor's office on Laurent Street in Victoria, listening to a couple of old ladies talk gloomily about illness and death. Not me, I remember thinking. Illness and death is for you.

For a while I had a pair of heavy rubber olive-drab-colored waders, a chest-high wading suit that enabled me to slosh out to 3-foot-deep water and keep my clothes dry, and I insisted on wearing them. If my grandfather's boat had ever capsized I would have sunk for good with this sea-anchor I had encased my body in. The waders were hot and uncomfortable but I knew that deeper water was where the bigger fish were, and since my grandfather always beached his boat to fish the canal because of the barge traffic, I believed my best chance at a really huge fish, the kind you see embalmed on the walls of tackle shops, lay with the waders, which got me within casting distance of the mysterious depths of the middle of the canal.

I was technique-oriented. I would get books on fishing, from the Victoria public library and pore over them. I would buy leaders and sinkers and swivels and hooks with my allowance, and I would painstakingly try to prepare my tackle according to the directions of the fishing books. But the swivels never worked right and the knots I tied always slipped or came loose. I cursed my fate as the son of a non-fisherman. I needed someone to show me the secrets. My grandparents were Oklahoma cane-pole fisherfolk, and had not the slightest interest in equipment; they fished with the meditative detachment of Zen masters, the way a few old black people still do today, and cared nothing for the fancy gear of sport fishermen.

The one time I remember that I did go fishing with my father was when I was 11. There was a McCulloch family reunion, I think, or at least a big gathering, at Port O'Connor. The first day my uncles and my grandfather McCulloch and my father rented a big old surplus World War II landing craft, one of these flat-bottom square-enders where the front gate would drop down to let out the troops to storm ashore at Normandy after the boat was driven aground. They rented this thing because of its capacity, not its seaworthiness, and all the men and boys in the family got in it, there must have been fifteen or twenty of us, and out into the back bay shallows we went. The idea was to land on some low islands in the bay and disperse a little and fish. But on our way back the wind had come up. There was a chop and the square end of the boat would smash the oncoming waves into a mighty explosion of saltwater and spume which would then cascade over everyone in the boat. We were drenched. We were utterly cold. I was enduring a trial with grown men. I was deeply pleased.

The following evening preparations were being made to go floundering; uncles were putting fuel in the lanterns and hefting the flounder gigs, and sighting down the shafts. In fishing for the flounder you use a spear, and walk through shallow water at night holding your lantern in one hand and the gig in the other, and when you see a flounder you stab it.

I had never been floundering. I assumed they were going to take me because they had taken me on the boat. When my father said, "Jimmy, you've got to stay here," I was utterly downcast and crestfallen. Stricken. I could hardly breathe, in my effort not to cry, an effort mandated by my dignity. I suppose they were concerned about sting rays, a hazard of floundering.

So that evening I stayed in front of the cabins where the women of the family were gathered, with my younger cousins, and listened to my Aunt Ruth tell some of the funniest stories I had ever heard in my life. I have no memory now of what the content of those stories might have been, though I remember an element of mimicry; probably she was making fun of the men out fishing. I was rolling around on the sand in the lantern light, gasping for breath. But it was insufficient solace.


The last time I visited that part of the Texas coast, I walked the crushed shell roads of a part of my childhood that still twisted over the ruined mud flats around Copano Bay among scrub live oaks, bearded with Spanish moss and contorted by the prevailing saltwinds into a permanent writhe. You could smell the tidal flats in the wind over the birdtrack runes in the low-tide mud.

At Dagger Point on the Blackjack Peninsula the bay water shimmered in the sun below the dense scrub forest of live oak and redbay trees. The trees grow on ancient sand dunes, remnants of a Pleistocene barrier island. The baywaters have eroded the base of the dunes. For half a century now the land has subsided as oil and fresh water are pumped from their various strata far below, and the shore has slowly sunk and retreated before the sea. The sands that might delay the erosion do not get to the bay anymore, because dams have plugged up the muddy Texas rivers whose fined and filtered silt originally created these sandhills during some ancient interglacial highstand. Toppled trees lie in the sandy shoals below the 30 foot high dunes. The water is shallow, two or three feet deep for several hundred yards into San Antonio Bay.

Out on the bay, patrols of brown pelicans pumped and glided low over the water. Kamikaze whirls of gulls and terns flocked the sky.

It was late summer at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, winter home of most of the world's whooping cranes. The cranes would not arrive here for another couple of months. There being no cranes to see, my wife and daughter and I walked in the woods looking for more common creatures, javelina hogs and raccoons and armadillos, along the sandy trails of the refuge. The oak forest trails were dim and humid and full of mosquitoes, and the light blinded you as you emerged from the undergrowth when the path broke out onto a marsh or the edge of the bay.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has cleared a short trail to Dagger Point through the trees and brush. We came out of the trees with our accompanying cloud of mosquitoes onto a wooden lookout platform built over the bright water. Below the lookout, maybe a hundred feet from shore, was the final home of an abandoned rusty folding chair with the seat not quite awash in the tide. Seaweed grew on it. Next to the rusting chair was a shiny new aluminum chair with green plaid plastic straps.

A woman was sitting in the newer chair, water up to her knees, tending two propped up fishing poles, the butts of the poles socketed in pipes driven into the gritty bay bottom. She occasionally stood up and gazed intently at the water around her. She was maybe 55 or 60 years old. She was wearing shorts. Her weathered fisherman's skin was burnt deep brown. She heard us on the platform and looked up at us, shouted "You see that alligator over there?" She waved toward a dark patch of sea grass a hundred yards out. The dark patch on inspection turned out to be a six foot alligator smiling toothy in the circle of my binoculars, swinging in the tide like a windsock hung in the sea. The small bay waves sometimes inundated the reptile's head, and its valve nostrils expelled a puff of spray as the animal exhaled.

"An alligator? An alligator in the bay? I didn't know they got into the salt water," my wife shouted back.

"Oh yes." The woman tested her poles before she left them unattended and waded toward us. "He comes here a lot. I guess he likes to fish here just like I do. But I watch out for him. I always look around and see what's out here before I start fishing. Today there was a big stingaree" she said, making a circle touching the tips of her fingers with her outstretched arms, "right over there. But it's gone now. I saw the alligator when I got here. I been keepin' an eye on him. When he goes under I make sure I see where he comes up."

"Aren't you scared?" My daughter asked.

"No, honey, I'm not scared. I just make a point of knowing his whereabouts."

We mulled this over.

"Catching any fish?" I asked her.

"No, not so far. I don't expect I will, what with the low tide. The fishing is usually pretty poor here, on a low tide. But I don't mind."

Alluding to the alligator, she said, "I guess he don't mind either."

She decided this was enough conversation for now, and turned away. She waded back to her chair, sat down and crossed her Morocco leather varicose-veined legs, and became as still as the sea and the alligator under the headlong acrobatics of the skirling terns. The twin fishing poles remained motionless, their filaments a shining taut arc into the water, ready. The floating alligator lurked patiently, submerging now and again to become a patch of undulating sea grass. Out in the bay, terns plunged into the sea with small white artillery impacts. The recoil of the sea seemed to throw the birds back aloft, as they bore away their tiny glittering fish.

I took my family over the causeway and on the ferry to Port Aransas. To the beach.

I have never felt at ease in the surf. This time I noticed the waves were bigger and more tumultuous than I expected. I cautioned my daughter and some kids she was playing with to stay close to shore. I would stand in a place two feet deep between wave crests. Sometimes the waves would come up to my shoulders. Sometimes they would hiss out seaward like someone had pulled a plug and water would throb around my ankles like powerful snakes just about the time the next big wave would arrive to smash me in the chest, to knock me down and suck off my sunglasses. The combers were full of roiled up sand and sargussum weed. Far-off fish would occasionally spurt out of the waves into the air like spat silver watermelon seeds and disappear with an unheard flick in the boom of the surf.

A helicopter was patrolling the outermost line of breakers. I was only vaguely aware of it. I was watching idly as the chopper came whacking toward us on one of its passes, when suddenly it made a hard 180 degree turn, and as its engine pitch rose to a tortured metalwhine, the copter tilted back down the beach a couple of hundred yards, halted, hovered and churned down low, hammering ten feet over the water in a smoking cyclone of mist.

It looked like they lowered a person into the water. It was hard to see because of the backblast. They threw down ropes, and pulled them up. Maybe they pulled a person up. The helicopter backed up and moved sideways slowly. Minutes passed.

"What happened?" I asked a lifeguard in his stand who was conferring with a walkie-talkie.

"Someone's in trouble." They had rescued one girl, he said. "Another girl's missing."

The minutes ticked through the realm of possible breath-holding into the realm of death by drowning as the helicopter moved slowly, angrily back and forth in its veil of sizzling fog. After half an hour the helicopter ascended to an altitude of about a hundred feet and swung out in a wider search pattern as its engine sound changed to an easier blat-blat-blat-blat noise. Now they were looking for a corpse. They continued to search until sundown, when they called it off. They continued the helicopter search the next day but it was someone on the beach who found the body as it rolled stiff-armed in the surf. The drowned girl was a vacationer from Mexico.

And that day the wind was a white noise behind the rumble of surf, the most ancient noise a human being can hear, and the sun swam in the morning clouds. The sea was gray, the sky full of salt blown off the surf foam, making a haze up and down the beach like pale smoke. Walkers dottled like seabirds, walked, stopped, stooped and poked, clustered and unclustered. Wormtracked and shellstuck planks lay in the sand, alongside bladders of Portuguese men-o-war, translucent blue like inflated intestinal membranes, shimmering iridescent in the smell of rotting fish.

Royal terns patrolled the chaotic surf, and laughing gulls mobbed the strand, and beyond the breakers paired brown pelicans flew by, lumbering, propelled by invariant instinct, a quest we can neither know nor imagine, of the joy of whole fish flipping down the gullet.

The racketing flock of thousands of blackheaded laughing gulls worked the beachwrack of matted tan gulfweed brought in by the waves. A frigate bird with alert robber eyes drifted parallel to the beach scrutinizing the gulls. The gulls would abruptly run and peck as they raced brown rivulets of sand containing tiny bivalves trundled in the retreating surf, gobbling them up as they rolled. Then the birds would suddenly halt stock-still, erect, jealous of their temporary small fiefdom of sand, vigilant, again examining the incoming waves that slid diminishing up the beach to a fizzing soapy dissipation, for inborne sargussum creatures. The wind would suck the gulls up instantly when they spread their wings and they would hang and veer and razor in the air to light down in a new spot, whence to rush after another morsel tumbled in the sheeted dishwater sea retreating down the beach.

The thrashing surf had rows of waves from two directions. The longshore drift was to the north. Beyond the farthest breach of waves I saw a flash of something, which in the circle of my binoculars became a man in a seagoing kayak, the sunlight glinting in a regular signal off the blade of his methodic paddle stroke. Near him I saw a man on a surfboard, looking for the best place to catch a wave, his wet brown back shining in the sunlight.

Back of the beach, goatsfoot morning glory vines cabled across the dunes to the windward of the sea oats. Inland, the cobalt commelinas shone among the camphor weed, purple salty phloxes and mallows and asters and Mexican hats and gaillardias and prickly pears. In the marshes, cattails and rushes in many shades of olive spiked out of the dark hypersaline shallows.

The light was dim in the bait shop snackbar at the shore end of the pay-to-fish pier. Billcap fishermen drank coffee the color of marsh water in styrene cups. The racked sunglasses for sale were electrolyzing slowly in the salt air, and were too corroded for anyone to buy.

In the heat of the day, the children built sand castles.

My final morning at the beach, I woke up to a dream. Phosphor thoughts darkened within their vault, gliding toward loneliness, phantom angels. I had walked far out into the waves and could no longer feel the bottom. Tumbrels of fear approached. I lurched, footing lost, rolled in an endless bottomless wavefield somewhere, under the heavy green waves rippling in the wind. The ocean pulled me out away from everything human and I felt nostalgia for the shore, where I had left a shadow or vestige, already remote and untended, like a planecrash, days later, or the after-image of a migraine.

The present world was spilled to the horizon like a remembered jetty into the sea, a photo of the Gone, from before the wars.

So I awoke where terns crackled in the birdcry Kittyhawk wind. Die? Live? How do we live? I lay in the surf-ridden breezes, pierced with sharp high birdvoiced decibels, tenths of sound, shards, pangs, shrapnel, awash in the final moment of Narvaez's broken longboats, underlain by the ancient motoring rumble substratum bottom sound, much more than a billion years old. My breath was drawn into the Precambrian, whispering toward the cellar of time.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Resonance of History

A note of explanation: This was written many years after 1969, when I lived about a year in Paraguay and travelled some in South America. The story 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 in the next few days I will be uploading to this blog the various stories (non-fiction, more or less) that I had on the deceased server. Photos of Yaguarón from the time of my stay there can be found here.

Cerro Yaguarón, Paraguay

Once I lived in Paraguay, in a village called Yaguarón, meaning big jaguar, which lay beneath a height called Cerro Yaguarón which had a cross on top. Every Easter the people of Yaguarón had a great procession up the steep path to the top marked by the stations of the cross.

I was there a year. Avocados grew in Yaguarón larger than grapefruits, and you had to catch them, cradled, as if they were giant eggs when you prodded them out of their tree with bamboo poles, or else they would smash into green butter on the warm red sand and the wandering cows would eat them. The village was laid out on a Spanish grid with streets 50 feet wide wherein the actual track of the oxcarts would wander like the channel of a braided stream. Most of the "street" was pasture, a village common for cows and pigs and chickens. The cattle ran loose and ate avocados and grapefruit by preference to grass, all of which grew in greater abundance than all the combined people and livestock could devour; leaving a residual odor, even yet in my mind, a sweet smell of citrus flowers and rotting fruit and eucalyptus leaves.

I am not especially religious, myself, unless you count an experience I had there, a moment when for some reason I still can't explain I lost my faith in science. One morning there in Paraguay, I was slung in a hammock across the porch watching the dust motes in shafts of light below the mountain cross, specks turning like one imagines diatoms in the sea, and a breeze came up that blew my mind away like the dust. It was like someone breathing, a movement like the passage of some kind of invisible weather, and everything seemed different after that.

I said nothing about it to anyone. Now here I was, a totally secular man, secular as only a Texas Methodist upbringing can make someone (if there is a vaccination against religiosity, it is the Methodist Church), suddenly cast loose from the great faith of the present world, our utterly heartfelt belief that the world and every thing in it is applied physics. It was like being bitten by a dog and realizing pain was not the same thing as the sub-atomic static of electrons across the nerve endings.

Fortune had provided me with grant money, and I stayed there in Paraguay, spent eight months translating the poems of Sextus Propertius into English, watching the dust glitter in the rays of subtropic afternoon light, 100 miles south of the Tropic of Capricorn, gazing at night at the twin luminous smears of the Magellanic clouds, our companions, and sleeping at night under a mosquito net on account of vampire bats and the kissing bug, vector of Chagas disease, possibly the source of Charles Darwin's lifelong debility-- Darwin records he was bitten by one.

At that point I should have put a cockleshell on my hat and taken up the staff. These were formerly badges of the pilgrim.

So I went to Buenos Aires, an odd place to go, where I had the feeling that time had stopped, a city with old, decayed, stone-bound streets like the capital of some unknown clone of the Austro-Hungarian Empire so remote that it survived because nobody knew about it. The air smelled like I imagine the fossil air of an Egyptian crypt, but somehow mixed with diesel fumes.

I had not read anything in English for many months. I started reading religious marginalia I bought in the small ultra-Britannic bookstores in Buenos Aires, stuff like Madame Blavatsky and D.T. Suzuki, found in among the Kipling and Hardy. I took my books to a German sidewalk beer place full of elderly, jovial refugee Nazis wearing lederhosen, and I ordered a stein of beer and started reading this stuff. I lost track of time. When I looked up it was 3 hours later and my beer was untouched, and not only was I as spiritually benighted as when I started, I was also being stared at; the Germans had gotten sour-looking and resented my sitting there with my mouth open and my eyes glazed over, and a full tankard of beer. Their discomfiture was because of the inappropriateness of it, like the congregation feels with a mumbling wino in a front pew.

For some reason I thought of the old joke of Voltaire's, and laughed, "if God made us in his image, we have certainly returned the compliment." My path seemed to be lit by the torch of chaos and doubt, as well as the flicker of lightning out beyond the darkness over the Rio de la Plata.

The Argentines I met were concerned mostly with politics and the quality of the vast steaks they all seemed to eat once or twice a day.

I remember one guy asking me, "How do you like Buenos Aires?" Which is a question every Porteño asks every foreigner, every day. I was tired of mincing words on this matter, so I replied that overall I preferred Paraguay.

He was appalled. "How barbaric!" he said. "Paraguay is so...backward. And it's full of Indians!" He clearly considered Paraguayans to be savages.

I tried to say, in a Spanish not necessarily up to the task, "But the Paraguayans are happier than Argentines. They don't feel deprived. They aren't full of grudges. They work three or four hours a day growing manioc, and spend the rest of their time drinking maté from a gourd while telling jokes about Porteños." I am not sure that I succeeded in saying all this, but he excused himself, and left, angry, not listening to my equivocation, that all the unhappy Paraguayans had emigrated to Buenos Aires to work.

I left Buenos Aires and saw the towns of the Pampas. There were no more real gauchos there, but in the northern towns in Argentina some of the men of the leisured classes still sat through the long afternoon siesta wearing fancy accordion-pleated boots, baggy pants, and the wide belt, drinking little cups of coffee in the outdoor cafes, drugstore cowboys. Martin Fierro, the great gaucho epic, was displayed in all the bookstores, a national monument. I never saw a copy that was not covered with dust.

Northern Argentina looked like South Texas, very poor and profoundly provincial, and so I felt at home there. You could feel the confining ignorance, and a kind of stiff-necked pride, just like where I grew up. And they all knew instinctively that it was better once, before the seedy factories and before Perón and before the omnipresent Communist and Peronist slogans scrawled on public walls. So the gaucho was very important to them, even to the semi-cultured Porteños who worshipped only the Tango, and Steak, and Politics.

I think the Disappearances, a decade later, may have sprung from a kind of fury when they realized the gaucho was gone for good.

The longer I stayed in South America the more unsettled I became.

I went by train across the Pampas up into the Andes, to La Paz, traveling in pukka sahib splendor on a stunningly slow train brought from England 75 years earlier and which had been rolling more slowly every year. But you could still sit under the crystal chandeliers in the dining car and look at yourself in mirrors framed in flaking Victorian gilding; I suppose you could have ordered champagne in a bucket of ice and gotten it, but at the altitude of the altiplano it would have been like asking for a stick of dynamite. Mainly I looked out the window at a world gliding by at 5 miles per hour that was stranger than any world I had ever imagined, the high lunar plateau of Bolivia, and I first heard the haunting melodies of the altiplano played on a guitar, a flute, and a bass drum.

I think it was because of the empty distances in the shadow of the Andes that I have since been fascinated by the accounts of the Spaniards, the few who could write; their attempts to put into words their discovery of the mountains and deserts of the new world. Eventually I found myself reading all the accounts of Spanish exploration and conquest I could get my hands on. I had acquired an unease about the world they discovered that has, if anything, grown over the years. The seeds of unease were there at the beginning, 450 years ago.

Those Spanish explorers of both the Americas, those few who were literate, left us scraps of description of alien places so crazy no one can understand much of it any more. I read in one account, of an epidemic of terrible and fatal warts which decimated the Spanish army one year, a story which I thought could not be true, but in a manual of tropical medicine I learned that there is in fact a lethal contagious disease of warts found only in the 8000 foot Andean valleys of Peru and Bolivia in our times secluding the remote haciendas of cocaine barons.

The word "army" is actually inappropriate when talking about a few hundred plunderers and religious fanatics who marched up from the unmapped margins of the continent against unknown mountain empires.

I can't help but admire them, especially the forgotten unsuccessful ones, who marched off into oblivion claiming great deserts and flowered jungles for king and church, and were never after heard from.

I began then to read about Cabeza de Vaca, perhaps only because in the course of his wanderings he lived in places I have lived, and was the first European to see sights I have later seen. I grew up on the Texas coast, where Cabeza de Vaca was marooned.

When I lived in El Paso I knew that in his trek across the continent he had passed by a few miles to the south. I often hoped I might find his signature scratched on the rock in the company of more modern graffiti defacing remote barren Indian shelters in the mountains of northern Chihuahua, among the painted images of the gods of the Indians. But no such luck.

The hill of Yaguaron must have looked to Cabeza de Vaca as it did to me.

In all of Cabeza de Vaca's adventures, in all the things he saw and did, his faith in God and Spain never wavered. More than anything else, this faith seems amazing and distant today.

When I lived in Paraguay I learned of the adventures of Aimé Bonpland. It was about two hundred and seventy five years after Cabeza de Vaca was deposed as governor in Paraguay that Bonpland was held there a prisoner for ten years.

Bonpland was a distinguished botanist, who had earlier explored the Orinoco with Humboldt. On the Orinoco expedition Bonpland had showed signs of going native nearly at once. He had disappeared into the jungle with an Indian woman and was gone so long, weeks, that Humboldt gave him up for lost and was ready to move on when Bonpland finally reappeared out of the forest. The explorations of Humboldt and Bonpland were productive and successful, and the adventurers returned to Europe to great acclaim.

Humboldt never returned to South America.

Bonpland, however, was unhappy in Europe, and was soon on his way to Buenos Aires. Eventually his search for new plant species took him to the Misiones region on the borders of Paraguay, where he settled down to do serious collecting and botanical research in the wilderness on the banks of the Paraná river. He established a yerbamate plantation there. He seems to have had a family, at that point. The xenophobic dictator of Paraguay, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, heard about the botanist's activity, and believing the famous naturalist to be a spy, ordered Bonpland seized. A team of Paraguayan commandos paddled canoes across the river one night and kidnapped Bonpland. They returned him in their canoes to Paraguay. Francia detained him there beyond the mighty barrier of the Paraná for ten years, causing more outrage in the civilized world than the detention of hostages in Iran did in Europe and America in 1979.

Dr. Francia may have been the first modern Third World revolutionary. Fevered by his theological studies at a remote Argentine Jesuit university and by the spirit if not the ideas of Rousseau and Robespierre and Marat, and by paranoia and nationalism, Francia seized power in Paraguay and ruled ruthlessly with an iron hand and tried, with success, in his own lifetime, to seal Paraguay off from the world, and return the country to a utopian Guaraní Indian communalism, a beatific vision backed by police spies and the garrote, like most such visions.

Bonpland did not idle away his time during his Paraguayan captivity. He renewed his botanical researches, and once again started a mate plantation and a farm, and acquired a reputation as a doctor. His services were much in demand. Francia once unaccountably allowed a foreign writer to enter Paraguay and interview Bonpland. Asked if he was content, Bonpland replied that he was as happy as a man can be who has been deprived of a home and family and friends.

In 1829 Francia suffered an attack of rheumatism which resisted all treatment. A doctor named Estiguerribia, Francia's personal physician, consulted Bonpland on the dictator's illness. Bonpland recommended that the dictator drink an infusion of turibí root and use a plaster of queraya leaves as a poultice. After three weeks Francia was well, and immediately ordered the botanist expelled from the country. It is not known whether Francia did this as a reward for the alleviation of his rheumatism, or as a punishment for the rigors of the treatment. In any case, Bonpland was once again abruptly removed from his botanical and horticultural research.

Bonpland never returned to Europe, and lived to a fairly old age on his farm across the Paraná river from Paraguay where he continued his research while living in a house which, according to one source, was made out of straw and mud. For 28 years after his captivity he lived there primitively with his wife and his children. Supposedly he never used a knife and fork again, though he maintained a large botanical garden and herbarium until his death. I have read that Bonpland made a pilgrimage to Paraguay after Francia died, not to see his old enemy dead, but to pay his respects.

In his last letter to Humboldt, Bonpland said that he would like to bring his collections back to Europe, and return just once to Paris to catch up on the literature and the current state of science, and buy books. Then, Bonpland said, he could return to his home in the forests "surrounded by the splendor of nature" to die.

But Bonpland never saw Europe again.

Lost between the primitive world and the modern world to the very end, Bonpland directed that when he died his body be embalmed by the latest scientific techniques. His wish was carried out so well that a gaucho entering the room courteously greeted the corpse lying in state. When the apparently preoccupied old scientist disdained to reply, the gaucho became enraged and drew a long knife and plunged it into the dead man's heart.