Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Day 119: Land of the Cowboys

Hobbs to somewhere past Humble City. 15.2 miles/2257.2 total

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

9:55 a.m. I am leaving from a spot just a few feet inside New Mexico from Gaines County, Texas, heading through Hobbs and northwest up New Mexico Route 18 to about halfway between Hobbs and Lovington.

This is my first day back walking after a six-month hiatus. I pick up at this now-familiar spot. It's a cloudless day with the wind out of the south. Temperature is around 60 now, heading up to about 75. Perfect.

Getting back into the swing of things, wearing the vest filled with stuff, talking into the recorder, making notations in the little notebook. The walking itself won’t be challenging, just tedious. But during the spring and summer I did very little to keep myself in shape, other than some cycling and sporadic trips to the gym, which became less frequent as summer progressed into fall. So as I begin this morning I am keenly aware of being overweight and out of shape. That’s why today’s walk will be only 15.2 miles instead of my usual 21 or so. I need to ease myself into the rigors (such as they are) of this undertaking.

If you’ve been following this blog recently you know that for the past several days--since Friday, in fact--I’ve been dwelling at the Walmart in Hobbs, except for the one night Laurine and I spent in El Paso before her flight. So I’m pretty familiar with all the wonderful allurements of this place. As a result I won’t be walking through the center of the town, but rather skirting it to the north on the Navajo Road bypass, which will take me through the newer parts of town and bring me out onto Route 18. But for those of you who are curious, let me tell you that downtown Hobbs consists of a half dozen blocks of one and two-story buildings, storefronts mostly, about half of which are empty, because the real action is to the north, closer to the Black Gold Casino.

Off to my left is a cotton field, planted in the familiar circular pattern. A little overlap from next door Gaines County, Texas, the largest cotton-producing county in Texas.

My first piece of road kill in New Mexico is a fairly large rabbit, which from the length of its legs I take to be a jackrabbit. Jackrabbits are actually hares, different from rabbits because of several things, including longer legs and ears. Hares also are adapted to less sheltered environments, and are born more or less ready to rock and roll, whereas rabbits are born blind and hairless, and on my street at least, ready to eat if you’re a cat. I’m guessing that the jackrabbit’s main predator around here is the coyote. The one I’m looking at may have escaped the coyote, but he didn’t make it across the road.

Where a sign of large turquoise letters welcomes me to Hobbs, I take the right turnoff onto Navajo Road. The terrain here is flat grasslands with occasional mesquite trees and bushes, power lines, lonely oil pumps. A sign to my left says, “Welcome to the Prayer Journey.” I wasn’t aware that I was on a prayer journey, but there it is. It thought I was on a journey of, well, of something else.

I don’t know what fall looks like down here but I don’t think it has set in yet. Everything that's supposed to be green still looks pretty green. At 5.1 miles I reach Grimes Street, one of the north-south thoroughfares in and out of Hobbs, on which are many fast food joints, big box stores, chain drugs stores, and so on. Having reached the one-third point in my trip I know it's a good thing I’m not doing a full walk today. Already my legs burn and my feet are developing aches. But nothing serious.

This part of Hobbs appears to be quite prosperous, probably due to the nearby racetrack and casino. Middle class neighborhoods, new apartment complexes, new schools. I guess when the black squirrels didn’t work out they decided to go with horses and slot machines. The Zia Park Raceway and Black Gold Casino, which are together at the north end of the city, have been around for maybe a decade, I’m not sure. I do know that in 2007 they were bought by an outfit called Penn National Gaming, so this isn’t an Indian casino. Penn National started in Pennsylvania, and for several decades has been starting and buying up race tracks and casinos around the country. In other words, badda bing, badda boom. In addition to gambling, Hobbs derives money from oil and cattle. Also, I met a guy last night who works at a uranium enrichment plant in Hobbs. There must be money in that. It's called "enrichment," after all.

At 6.1 miles I turn right onto New Mexico 18 to head toward Lovington. In the McDonald’s where I stopped to go to the bathroom I saw a couple of tables full of Mennonite girls, probably from some of the same tribes of Mennonites who inhabit Seminole, Texas, about 30 miles east of here.

The sign says it’s 17 miles to Lovington. I’ll do half of that distance today and the rest tomorrow. Hobbs and Lovington both lie in Lea County and Lovington is the county seat.

At 7.5 miles, as I approach the turnoff for the casino, I pass a string of new hotels. I’m halfway through with this walk, and feeling it. Here in front of the Lea County Event Center there’s a nice wide walkway and jogging path. Up from the casino is New Mexico Junior College and the Lea Regional Medical Center.

I stop at the Allsup’s Conoco station for some refreshment, my last opportunity to buy anything for the remainder of the walk. They’re very big around here on these iron silhouette sculptures, mostly of cowboys. Cowboy on a horse, cowboy with a rope, praying cowboy.

In front of the medical center is the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum. I go inside. From the looks of it the Cowboy Hall of Fame inducts two people a year. They have names like Homer and Virgil, Marvin and Tom, Roy Dale and Daniel Clyde. Here’s Jiggs Dinwiddy. And my favorite so far, Sanford Columbus Bilberry, Jr., known to his friends as San. I don’t know exactly what qualifies someone to be in the cowboy hall of fame, but from the little bios on their plaques I suspect it's owning a big fat ranch that produces lots of cattle. Also things like the ability to ride and rope. A number of champion riding cowboys have come from Lea County. Most of these guys, and a few women, seem to have come over from Texas at some point, which makes sense. This area was once part of Texas, and it was open cattle range as recently as a hundred years ago.

There’s also a photo gallery, with color photos mostly of cowboy activities. And an animatron named Gus, who sits beside a chuck wagon and answers questions in a down home twangy way that makes me think of a Firesign Theater song:

Back from the shadows again,
Out where an Indian's your friend.
Where the vegetables are green
And you can pee into the stream! (and that's important)
Yes, we're back from the shadows again.

In the historical museum there’s an exhibit showing all the flags that have flown over this part of New Mexico. Spain, Mexico, Texas, the Confederacy, the U.S., the State of New Mexico. The Republic of Texas once claimed all of New Mexico east of the Rio Grande, about half the present state. The U.S. didn’t recognize this claim until it became expedient to do so during the Mexican War. Then, once Texas was part of the U.S., the fatherland decided to take this area away from Texas. In the Compromise of 1850 the U.S. created the New Mexico Territory. During the Civil War this was claimed as a slave territory, under the suzerainty of Texas.

Lea County didn’t become a separate county until 1917, five years after New Mexico became a state. It was formed out of portions of Eddy and Chaves Counties. Lovington was founded in 1908 by James Benjamin Love and his brother Robert Florence Love (who preferred to be called Florence--and hey, why not?). Hobbs was founded by James Isaac Hobbs, who arrived here in 1907, with his banjo on his knee.

Well, that was an enjoyable sojourn. My interest in cowboys isn’t so keen these days, although when I was a little kid it was. Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Sky King, the Lone Ranger. Back then cowboy shows were as common as shows about forensic cops and Dancing with the Dipshits are now. Yee-ha. Whoopie Tie One On. Or, as Bruce Willis is fond of saying, Yippi Ki Yay, motherfucker.

It’s 2 o’clock and the temperature has risen to about 75. Quail dart in and out of bushes along the jogging path. Across the street is a place called the University of the Southwest, a small campus set back about a quarter mile from the road. It turns out to be a former Baptist college that is now not affiliated with any religion except, apparently, the religion of free enterprise.

At 9.6 miles I pass another big turquoise Hobbs sign, going the other way. I come to a place called Humble City. And humble it is, comprising only a few dozen trailers along a 150-yard road, and a few other scattered ones. It’s listed on the internet only as a “populated place.”

I find only my second road kill of the day, a coyote. Chasing a jackrabbit across the road, probably. Then a few feet down a third one, a vulture. Killed while swooping down to eat the dead coyote, probably.

At 12.6 miles I come to the Cowboy Junction Church. As I walk the last two or three miles to the motor home, off to the east is the vast expanse of high plains where the cowboys once drove their cattle unimpeded by fences. It’s still not difficult, if you ignore the barbed wire, to imagine it as it was then, interrupted only by telephone poles and railroad tracks.

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