Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Olga to Cochise/Graham County line. 19.4 miles/2698.3 total
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
As I write this blog post, I am sitting in the motor home looking out the front window, watching the sun set over the Dos Cabezas Mountains, aware that I am among the most fortunate of men to be here at this moment, on this journey. Denizens of the area--ranchers, petty merchants, hardscrabble farmers, some wealthy and others barely scraping by--live their entire lives surrounded by this beauty. Their individual histories as dispossessed Indians, misplaced Mexicans, or Anglos with a sense of entitlement color their view of the landscape just as surely as the pink and purple clouds color the southwestern horizon I am viewing. As I move westward, leaving nothing behind me but a few tracks and a little garbage, I am not the least bit tempted to improve or damage what I pass through, or to lay claim to it for myself, my descendants, or my ancestors. That is the key to my good fortune.
9:25 a.m. I set out from Olga Road, near mile 370, heading through Bowie and up U.S. 191 to near the Cochise/Graham County line, a distance of 19.4 miles.
Today is cloudless and a bit warmer than yesterday, due in large part to the fact that the wind is not blowing. It feels as if it’s in the low 40s, and I expect it to get into the low 50s.
It’s very quiet on this road except for the sound of the I-10 traffic. I’m dressed for yesterday’s weather, a little more warmly than I need to be. It reminds me of a story my mother used to tell me at bed time, about a dimwitted kid who always prepared for things that had happened the day before. One day he went to his grandmother’s and she gave him some butter to take home, and he put it under his hat and it melted all over his head. His mother scolded him and told him the next time to wrap the butter up and walk along the stream and dip the butter in the water to keep it cool. So the next day his grandmother gave him a puppy, which he dutifully dipped into the stream as he walked along, until the poor thing drowned. (Those old stories didn’t mess around, boy.) His mother scolded him and told him the next time to tie a rope around the puppy’s neck and lead it along. So the next day his grandmother gave him a ham, which he dragged along behind him on a rope. And so on.
At about 2.5 miles into the walk I come upon a work crew from a jail or prison, shoveling hot asphalt into potholes on the road. They’re wearing orange jumpsuits that say ADC, which I assume stands for Arizona Department of Corrections. And they’re working for ADOT, the Arizona Department of Transportation. And a friendlier bunch of guys you couldn’t ask for. They all wave and smile and say hello to me as I go past, pleased at the diversion and happy to be outdoors, I expect. The only ones not smiling are their tenders, keeping their faces stony. But as for the prisoners, Zip-a-de-do-dah. They are doing a rather mediocre job of filling in the potholes, I must say.
At 3 miles I arrive at a Shell convenience store where I stop, not so much because I need anything but because it’s there. I stocked up earlier at the Chevron a few miles back when I got gas. But hell, a store’s a rarity out here, so I go in and buy a hot chocolate, which hits the spot. This station has a sign offering “Jerky, Olives, Honey, and Nuts.” Sounds like the four major food groups to me.
I’m walking along Business I-10 now, headed for the town of Bowie, coming up in two miles. Bowie is an unincorporated community of about 700, but looks a little more busy and prosperous than San Simon. The internet says Bowie is the birthplace of the fictional character John Rambo, the guy Sylvester Stallone played in the First Blood movies. There’s a biography of Rambo in the Wikipedia article, including his birth date (July 6, 1947) and the fact that he’s Navajo on his father’s side and either Italian or German on his mother’s side. Down here he should be Apache or O'odham, but what the hell.
Bowie was no doubt named for Jim Bowie, the famous knife guy and one of the heroes and casualties of the Battle of the Alamo. That’s where he and William Travis and Davy Crockett and John Wayne and God knows who else all died to preserve slavery in Texas. So here's to Jim Bowie, hero of slave owners everywhere.
There’s a Fort Bowie National Historic Site some 15 miles distant, near a place called Apache Pass. It may well be that Fort Bowie predated the village of Bowie. The fort was constructed in 1862 to do battle with the Chiricahua Apaches, of which Cochise was a leader at the time. Just before that Cochise had been falsely accused of having raided a ranch owned by a man named John Ward, and was arrested then escaped. It turned out that different Apaches were responsible for the raid. In 1862 Apaches ambushed Union troops on their way to fight the Confederates in New Mexico, at the Battle of Apache Pass, prompting the army to build Fort Bowie to protect the pass and its water source.
Over the next several decades the army battled the Apaches from Fort Bowie, culminating in the surrender of Geronimo, another great Chiricahua Apache military leader, in 1886. At that point a bunch of the Chiricahuas, including Geronimo, were sent to Florida and Alabama, then later to Oklahoma. Although he was officially a prisoner of war at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Geronimo managed to get around a bit, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where he sold souvenirs of himself, and riding in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905. He died in 1909 and was buried in the Apache Prisoner of War Cemetery in Fort Sill. But according to legend, he continued to get around even in death. It seems that Prescott Bush (father of George H.W. and grandfather of W.) and five other members of the Yale Skull & Bones Society were stationed at Fort Sill during World War I. They allegedly dug up Geronimo’s skull and some of his bones and sent them to the Tomb of their club, back in New Haven. Got to keep those skulls and bones coming in, I guess.
As I walk toward Bowie I go past a huge grove of pecan trees, many acres of them. It goes on for almost a mile along Business 10, and south for at least a half mile, to the expressway.
I enter Bowie at about 5 miles. This is another town of ramshackle buildings, abandoned gas stations, and other emporia. Outside a tiny place calling itself a Mini-Mart an equally tiny young cat emerges and walks up to me. She looks like a domestic version of the ring-tailed cat, with a tan body and a black and white ringed tail. She follows me past the Bowie Market and the post office and a building that looks like a tepee. I cross the street and still she follows, meowing incessantly and rubbing my leg. I have a little talk with her and tell her that if she can keep up with me for another 15 miles I’ll adopt her. Although I recognize this possibility as remote, I begin making plans to use my dishpan as a cat litter box and to feed her potted meat and milk until I can get to the store for cat food. All this happens within the space of about ten minutes. Finally, at the abandoned Dairy Burger restaurant at the west edge of town, the cat gets tired and can’t keep up. With regret but no surprise I turn and bid her goodbye.
As I’m photographing a burnt-out Texaco gas station a man stops his truck to ask me why I’m taking pictures. I ask him if he’s the owner of the gas station. He hesitates in such a way that I know he isn’t, but he says finally, “well, partially, yes.” I say that I’m just a tourist walking through and taking pictures of interesting things. He seems satisfied with that, and I wave to him as he drives off.
At the west end of town the pecan groves begin again. I’m back out in the country, getting ready to go up onto I-10 for a few miles until I get to Exit 355, which will take me north to U.S. 191.
I get my third ride offer in Arizona, from another friendly guy. I know this isn’t anywhere near Winslow, Arizona, but I’m waiting to see "a girl, my Lord, in a flat bed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me." In truth, other than Diana the Apache woman in New Mexico, the only unaccompanied females who’ve offered me rides have looked like they could probably kick my ass. Which makes sense, come to think of it.
With about a mile to go before the exit I climb a barbed wire fence and get onto another side road. I pause to rest on a bridge over a dry river bed. Then I head up to the road that will take me north away from I-10. This little spur goes on for about three miles and at 17.4 miles it merges with U.S. 191 itself. I’ll be on this road for another day and a half, heading north, until I reach Safford.
The sun is behind me on my left side as I arrive at a spot just south of the Graham County line. The motor home is parked about a hundred yards short of where they’re doing major road construction, widening this highway into a divided four-lane.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Arizona state line to Olga. 20.9 miles/2678.9 total
Monday, November 29, 2010
8:33 a.m. I’m setting forth from Exit 390, Cavot Road, at the Arizona line, heading along I-10 and parallel to it through San Simon to Olga, a distance of 20.9 miles.
There are a few scattered clouds, and the mountains ahead are a bit hazy. It is quite chilly, probably in the high 30s right now, headed up only into the mid-40s, with the usual strong wind out of the west. This cold front should pass through by tomorrow morning, but tonight promises to get down to around 20.
I trust all my readers had a pleasant holiday weekend. I did, and am now ready to hit the road again.
I’m in Cochise County, here in the southeast corner of Arizona, whose county seat used to be Tombstone, but since 1929 has been Bisbee. This is a large county, and I won’t be going anywhere near either Bisbee or Tombstone, both of which are miles to the south. In fact, at over 6,000 square miles Cochise County is as large as Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. With all its open and thinly inhabited areas, Arizona has only 15 counties, and this isn’t even the largest of them. Just to put that statement into perspective, Michigan, which is a little more than two-thirds the size of Arizona, has 88 counties.
Tombstone of course is the site of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral featuring Wyatt Earp. In 1880 Wyatt Earp served for a short time as sheriff for the southern part of Pima County, which contained Tombstone. For political reasons he failed to become sheriff of the newly-created Cochise County in 1881. Later that year he and two of his brothers and Doc Holliday were arrayed against various local miscreants in the legendary gunfight, and afterwards in a vendetta and a good bit of legal wrangling. In 1886, Texas John Slaughter, another name from our cowboy TV past, became sheriff of Cochise County. Today Tombstone has fallen from its original glory as a gold and silver mining town of 10,000, and has a population of about 1,500 and an economy based on tourism. Based, in fact, on that one gunfight.
Cochise, after whom the county is named, was a Chiracahua Apache chief who lived in the area and fought the Mexicans and the Americans for most of his life. He had a stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains, southwest of here, where he was buried in a hidden grave. Five years later they named a new county after him. Cochise, like all Indians, fought what was ultimately a losing battle against the European invaders, both Spanish and Anglo, but for putting up a good effort he got his name on a large chunk of land, once he was safely out of the way. At first this doesn't seem like such a good deal, considering that all the land from Texas over to Arizona and a good bit of northern Mexico once was the nomadic home of the Apaches. But hell, without the white man and his written language and his penchant for naming places after humans rather than animals and spirits and laughing waters and all that stuff, who outside the Apache nations would even know the name Cochise today? Fat lot of good it does them, admittedly. But it's the only way we have of conferring immortality. We came, we saw, we conquered, we named it after the vanquished. And we're not giving it back. I think you'll find that pattern repeating itself throughout European and American history. That's how we roll.
There are mountains all around me today—misty blue ones far in front to the west; purple, brown, and gray ones to the south; and with the sun shining full on them, pink and red and green ones to the north. Behind me is another formation, the one I came over last Tuesday.
Prickly pear cactuses grow on the side of the road, turned purple for the winter. The ubiquitous mesquites are joined by some kind of flowering juniper bushes. Behind a bush I discover the first barrel cactus I’ve seen in the wild so far.
I read last night that the ring-tailed cat is the Arizona state mammal. So far the only one I’ve seen was in New Mexico, just over the line. Maybe I’ll see a few more. Then again, maybe not. The New Mexico state mammal was the bear, and I didn’t see any of them. And I haven't seen any of the famous reptiles of the southern states, like alligators and rattlesnakes, all of which is fine with me.
By 6 miles into the walk I’ve passed the rest area where I stayed last night and will again tonight, as well as a truck weigh station. Other than that, there’s nothing much to report, and even if there were, it’s too cold to take my hands out of my pockets for very long to report it. The wind has picked up and I’m just trying to keep my head down and stay as warm as I can.
Past the weigh station, at about 8 miles, I take the exit for San Simon and go off on a parallel side road. In another mile I enter the village of San Simon. It’s a dumpy little place—mostly prefabricated houses and trailers and wrecked vehicles strewn about--but it does have a high school, and a fairly new one at that. There aren’t enough souls here in town to justify a high school, but I imagine that within a twenty mile radius there are. The internet says the population in 2000 was 831, and that number probably goes up quite a bit if you include outlying territory.
I pass a tire repair shop that’s open and a truck repair shop that might be and the post office down a side street. Also a tiny rundown convenience store that was open earlier but is now closed. It probably just does morning business, or maybe they’re taking a siesta. At the western edge of the community there’s something that looks like it might have been a small cotton gin, abandoned and with its windows broken.
The commercial jewel of San Simon (and the only place to buy anything worth buying) is the Chevron truck stop located near the second I-10 exit, about three miles down from the first one. Here I go inside to rest and warm up and purchase a warm drink. There’s a restaurant inside, too, and some tables facing a large-screen TV. Big is on, and I watch a bit of it. I think Tom Hanks did his best work in comedy when he was young, some of it quite good in a junior-league Cary Grant kind of way.
At 12.5 miles I go out onto Olga road, a few dozen yards north of the interstate and about a hundred feet south of the railroad tracks. Fortified now with cappuccino, I’m ready for the last three hours.
With the wind blowing cold into my face I think I need to get out the iPod and start listening to The Jungle, because no matter how uncomfortable I might be, when I listen to the plight of those poor sons of bitches in Chicago I feel comparatively comfortable.
My first Arizona roadkill is a javelina, one of those little wild hairy pigs. Initially I see just the flattened head, unmistakable, and a front leg. Then a few yards down I find the rest of the skin. The meat is long gone. Whether you’re bird or beast, there’s nothing tastier than roadside pork.
At about 19 miles, just for variety, I go onto the packed dirt between the road and the railroad tracks, dodging tumbleweeds and following some truck tracks. Eventually the motor home comes into view. When I get there I hop in and crank up the heat.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Gary, New Mexico to Arizona line. 16.4 miles/2658 total
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
9:43 a.m. I’m leaving greater metropolitan Gary, at Exit 15 of I-10, going to just beyond the Arizona state line, at Exit 390, a distance of 16.4 miles. My goal today is to get into Arizona, and having accomplished that I will break off early. I’m traveling up to Phoenix tonight and tomorrow to spend the Thanksgiving weekend with my wife and various in-laws.
Although the sky is cloudless overhead there’s a thin covering of high clouds in the west. The temperature is in the low 50s with the usual breeze blowing at me. It should get into the low to mid 60s again.
I’m walking toward the southern edge of the Peloncillo Mountains, most of which are in Arizona. After a few miles of flatlands I will begin to climb into the foothills. As I look around me here, the area is a vast dried mud plain for miles in each direction, with the railroad tracks about a half mile to the north of the expressway. It occurs to me that this area was ideal for the building of the World War Two internment camp, with its flatness and proximity to the railroad. So the camp must have been here or somewhere very nearby.
A mile or so into the walk I come to the skeleton of an old car lying bottom up on the cracked mud on the other side of the barbed wire fence. It is, or was, pale green, and is now more rusty than anything. I can’t be sure, but it looks like a 1960 Mercury. Not much of it left, however. In its present state it resembles a huge insect stranded on its back.
When I’m finished today I will have walked a total of 415.5 miles in New Mexico over 21 days, averaging 19.7 miles per day. Since this is to be my last day in this state I’d like to say a word or two of valediction. New Mexico has been beautiful from stem to stern. Not a lush familiar eastern beauty, of course, but magnificent in its own desolate way, with the mountains and an amazing variety of desert plants.
Although I have walked through a sparsely populated part of a sparsely populated state, the people I have met have been almost uniformly friendly and helpful and open. The few exceptions were Anglos, conservative and paranoid. But the Indians and Spanish-speaking people were uniformly decent regardless of their political views, which they were thoughtful enough to keep to themselves. I get the same feeling here I’ve had everywhere in the south (and many places in the north, truth be told), that if all the white people left this would be a much better place to live. In saying that I’m sure I echo the sentiments of generations of Native Americans, Mexicans, and African Americans. And on that note, I am leaving.
I can best sum up my time here by quoting a couple of lines from a song all of us learned as children:
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
I come to what looks like a dirt road a few dozen yards from the interstate. It’s all cracked and baked mud, in mottled chunks hard enough to walk on. Just off the road I see abandoned filthy heavy wool blankets under the abbreviated shade of the mesquites, evidence that people have spent a cold night under the stars. As I look off to the south I see that it’s just like this for hundreds of acres. This would be a great spot to film a movie, and I'll bet they’ve set a few here.
At 9.5 miles I see the sign for the exit for Road Forks. I wonder if they named a community for a traffic direction sign—“Road Forks Ahead.” I get off the highway. The internet says this is or was a real community, founded in 1925 by G.H. Porter. There may be something to the north, but what I see here on the south side is a fireworks place and a gas station convenience store and one or two other businesses whose viability is dubious.
This is one of only a couple of times I’ve walked five days in a row. Ordinarily I take every fourth or fifth day off, and sometimes more than that. I think I owe the success of this journey, from the standpoint of my health, to the fact that I do rest fairly often. I think if I walked day after day without a break I’d get run down and probably contract some local illness. Maybe not bubonic plague, but perhaps the collywobbles. As it is, I've only been sick once, when I had a sore throat for a few days around Austin, Texas, and that didn't cause me to miss any walking. Knock on wood. All this is an elaborate way of saying I’m feeling more fatigue than usual today, and will appreciate five days off.
I visit the gas station mini mart in Road Forks for a cappuccino, which is so sweet I have to water it down. As I sit on the front steps of the place and look back to the east I see the long plain I’ve just crossed from Lordsburg, and to the west the rolling foothills I will begin to climb when I get back on my feet.
As an afterthought about the origins of the name of Hidalgo County, it seems to me that whether it was named for Miguel Hidalgo or the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo comes pretty much to the same thing. That’s because Guadeloupe Hidalgo, the city north of the Mexican capital where the treaty was signed, was no doubt itself named after Miguel Hidalgo, as well as the Virgin of Guadeloupe, who I believe was Miguel’s first wife. That the marriage ended and she is still referred to as the Virgin will perhaps afford a glimpse into what went wrong there.
In the wake of this lighthearted blasphemy, the most amazing thing happens. I’ve been picking up a penny here and a quarter there, and am beginning to tally how much change I’ve found on the road in New Mexico, when I come upon the site of a roadside fire. It appears that an RV or a semi truck cab has burned, destroying virtually everything. The fire has melted a bowling ball to a misshapen mass, and I identify it only by the familiar Brunswick logo. Pieces of flip flops and charred tools and bits of metal are all that remain of this conflagration, which even spread to the grassy roadside a bit. The frame of the vehicle has been taken away.
I spy in the midst of the strewn black wreckage the glint of something metal, with that dark blue-silver tint that fire produces. At first I think it’s a slug, but when I bend down to take a closer look I see that it’s a quarter. Cool, I think. Then I see another one, and another and another. I begin picking them up, all soot-covered, and soon I can’t hold them in one hand. Then I start to see larger coins—Eisenhower dollars, Kennedy halves, Susan B. Anthony dollars. Finally I come to a metal dashboard ashtray, half sunk, which is also crammed full of coins. I gather it all up in both hands and carry it back away from the road onto some clean sand, spread it out and begin to count it.
When all is said and done I have over $92 dollars in coins--$38 in dollars and halves, $52 in quarters, and the rest in pennies, dimes, and nickels. Also a handful of foreign coins of various kinds. I spot at least one Indian head penny and a few wheat-backed ones. Some of the smaller coins, from quarters on down, have bent from the intense heat. I quickly sort them a bit and drop them into two baggies I happen to have on hand, then after using the rest of my water to wash the black off my hands, I put the coins into the back of my walking vest. They're much heavier than the two 20-ounce bottles of water I usually carry, but since I have only about five miles to go I cheerfully shoulder this burden—my treasure trove.
Scenes from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre begin to flash through my mind, and I imagine myself as Fred C. Dobbs, gaunt and haunted by the burden of my money, trudging up the hill and waiting to be set upon by banditos. I feel a pang of sympathy for the person who lost such a great deal in that fire—not the money so much as all those other possessions. It could as easily happen to me. Knock on wood again.
Two miles later I get to Exit 3 and a place called Steins. It’s supposed to be a ghost town now and was once a railroad stop along the Southern Pacific that had as many as 1,300 inhabitants. There remain a dozen or so buildings, built of stone and what looks like railroad ties. At the entrance, just at the bottom of the exit ramp, near the sign that says “Welcome to Steins,” I am accosted by a woman smoking a cigarette on the back porch of a double wide. She asks me in a rather surly way if she can help me. I know this is a cheesy tourist place, but I can’t imagine that she could be gatekeeper. So I answer her in kind, rather flippantly, with “I don’t know, can you?” A mistake. She takes offense, informing me that I’m a smartass and that I'm trespassing on private property. I’m in no position to dispute either of these assertions, so I leave. Only on the way up the entrance ramp does it occur to me that she might be running this little tourist trap.
On my way up to the freeway I can still see her on the porch, and I give her a friendly wave. She glares at me, but waves back. Off I go, pausing to take a couple of photos of the back of this railroad ghost town.
On the way down the hill from Steins I see a cat-like animal with a tawny body and a long ringed tail, dead on the roadside. Later I look it up on the internet and discover that it's a ring-tailed cat, which is not really a cat, but related more to the raccoon. It’s native to the southwestern mountains. This is a new species for me on this trip.
Not long before entering Arizona I sit on a guard rail to take a short rest and look back fondly once more at the Land of Enchantment. I can see the colorful sign up ahead at the state line. When I get close enough I see that it says “The Grand Canyon State Welcomes You” under a star with rays coming out of it.
At 15.9 miles I leave New Mexico and enter Arizona, my eleventh state so far. It’s time now for a last statistical wrapup for New Mexico. In money, not counting my treasure, I found $3.37. Also one Mexican Peso. Add to that today’s spectacular find of $92.15 and the total is $95.52, a record for sure. I had 40 ride offers, which is about two a day and very respectable, not including several inquiries after my wellbeing from police officers. In the all-important category of roadkill, I saw 13 coyotes, 12 skunks, 11 rabbits, 6 raccoons (my spirit animal), 5 miscellaneous birds plus one vulture, 3 deer, 2 porcupines, 2 snakes, 1 ground squirrel, 1 bobcat, 1 domestic dog, 1 domestic cat, 1 ring-tailed cat, and 1 javelina. Plus the usual multitude of unidentified bones and patches of fur.
Thus do I close the spiral notebook on one state and open one for the next. I get off at exit 390 and walk the last half mile to where the motor home is parked, and bid you all a happy Thanksgiving weekend.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Lisbon to Gary. 19.4 miles/2641.6 total
Monday, November 22, 2010
9:24 a.m. I lock up my car at the parking lot of the haunted gas station at exit 34 on I-10 and head toward Lordsburg and past it to exit 15, near a place called Gary. Distance, 19.4 miles.
On the map it says I’m going past Lisbon right now, just a bit west of the exit. The internet says nothing except that it is a “populated place.” I’m a bit skeptical even of that. But then, there might be a house or two within a one mile radius of here.
In any event, I have entered Hidalgo County. This county was created from part of Grant County, which I just left, in 1919, so it is relatively new. Some say it was named for a Miguel Hidalgo, who was a priest and leader of an uprising of indigenous and mestizo people against the Spanish government in Mexico in 1810. Although this effort was unsuccessful and Hidalgo was captured and executed, it is considered the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence, and he is considered the father of the nation of Mexico, even though independence wasn’t achieved for another decade. Let me give you this guy’s full name, because it is so preposterously long: Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo y Costilla y Gallaga Mondarte Villaseñor. I'll bet they just called him Mikey.
Others believe Hidalgo County was named for the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War on terms quite favorable to the United States, and under which we officially acquired, among other things, New Mexico. However, most of Hidalgo County wasn’t acquired until the Gadsden Purchase in 1853-4.
It’s another clear day in paradise, but with a few clouds hanging in the west. The temperature is in the low 50s, and will probably get into the low 60s, rather chilly. The wind is blowing at me again from the west. Nothing new there.
My friend Greg Farnum has provided me with a great North Korean slogan, which I believe epitomizes this entire journey: “Let’s Continue the Arduous March Onward to Paradise.” I don’t know about those North Koreans, but that about covers it for me. Paradise being, in my case, the end of the journey at the Pacific Ocean.
Five or more miles to the south, and perhaps as many miles to the north, low mountains rise from the flat desert. In front of me, thirty miles ahead in Arizona, rise the Peloncillo Mountains.
There’s nothing at all wrong with walking along the side of the interstate, except for the fact that it’s technically not permitted. The shoulder is smooth and wide, and the traffic isn’t moving much faster in my direction than it is on many highways where pedestrians are allowed. And for the next several days of walking I will be on I-10 more often than not before striking north toward Phoenix on US 191.
I’m always on the lookout for an access or parallel side road that I might have missed while driving, and still prefer to walk on them when possible. They’re usually hidden by weeds that grow on both sides, and the giveaway is a second barbed wire fence. There’s always a barbed wire fence along the road, but when I can see two of them about fifty feet apart I know there’s a road in between. Right now there is no such road.
The railroad tracks run alongside the expressway--James Gadsden’s dream, which fortunately he did not live to see, and which didn’t come into being until fifteen years after his home state of South Carolina and the rest of the south was sacked by the victorious armies of Sherman and Grant.
I see dead and mangled on the roadside something that looks like a young pig, but very hairy. This is probably a javelina, or peccary, a small member of the pig family related tangentially to the feral pigs that also roam pretty much everywhere in the country.
As I come around a slight bend in the highway I can finally see the first signs of Lordsburg—the Pilot and Flying J truck stops, with their signs reaching for the heavens.
A state policeman stops me and I expect to be dressed down for walking on the interstate, but he only wants to know if I’m okay. I explain my walk, and he says, “So that’s your car with the Michigan plate back at exit 34?” I say yes, and that I hope it’s okay there, and he says it’s just fine. Observant guy, and also very nice. He shakes my hand and wishes me good luck, and that’s that. So I guess I walk the highway with at least the tacit approval of the New Mexico State Police.
Shortly thereafter I do spot a two-lane road running parallel on the north side. I have to climb not one but two barbed-wire fences to get to it, and then it leads me up to the truck stops. I have occasionally thought about carrying a small pair of wire cutters, but I guess I’d rather get caught climbing a fence than destroying one. After all I'm out here in plain sight most of the time.
So I visit the Pilot station, and after leaving it with my cappuccino in hand I begin walking the sidewalk along Business I-10, a four-lane road that skirts the small downtown of Lordsburg. This is also known as East Motel Drive, but they should call it Abandoned Motel Drive, because all the establishments along here have been closed for some time, and only their skeletons remain. All the snazzy new chain motels are off the main highway.
Lordsburg’s population in 2000 was 3,379, and I doubt if it’s grown much since then. It contains the majority of the citizens of Hidalgo County. During World War Two there was a Japanese American internment camp near here with 1,500 detainees. It operated until 1943. The camp also held German and Italian prisoners of war.
At Animas Street I take a left and go down a few blocks to see what the center of the town looks like. Eventually I come to the Hidalgo County Courthouse, built in 1926. It's nothing fancy, built of dark brown brick with a nice decorative cornice across the flashing along the edge of the flat roof. The building rather resembles an old elementary school in Waterford Township, where I grew up. With a county population of only about 5,900 to take care of it doesn’t need to be very large.
I meander through the rest of the downtown, which is practically empty. The action in Lordsburg, such as it is, is down along the interstate. I go back up to Business I-10 and follow it out to the west side, past another spate of empty motels. Finally I get to Love’s Truck Stop, next to which is a Day’s Inn. Rounding out this little commercial cluster are the Gold Hill Outpost and Mom and Pop’s Pyro Shop, offering “year round fireworks.”
A historic marker tells me that Lordsburg’s elevation is 4,245 feet. It was founded in 1880 on the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad and was named for Delbert Lord, an engineer on the railroad. In 1927 Charles Lindberg landed his Spirit of St. Louis at the Lordsburg airport.
Where the business route merges with I-10 I decide to stay on a side road, which becomes gravel within a few hundred yards. I now have about five miles to go. I stay on the road for a mile or so, then realize I’m getting rather far away from the interstate, so I decide to bushwhack across the desert between the two roads, cutting a long diagonal in the direction of the interstate.
This mile-wide field I’m walking across is flat and covered with gray gravel and mesquite bushes, as well as jagged pieces of red rock. It’s strewn with litter and evidence of campfires and nights of drinking and two-track roads that may have run through it at one time. It doesn't look quite wild, but more like it's on the way to becoming wild again. I wonder if this is where the internment camp was?
One of the persistent hazards of walking through this type of terrain is the mesquite thorns that stick up from dead branches and sometimes go all the way through the thick rubber soles of my shoes. Then sometimes they break off and the tip of the thorn remains deep inside, sticking through and stabbing the bottom of my foot. When that happens I have to take the shoe off and do surgery on it with my knife, cutting a slit and probing until I come up with the tiny needle-like piece that’s poking me. I could wear hard-soled hiking shoes, but I prefer the more cushiony kind, and this is the price I pay.
Eventually I come to the inevitable barbed wire fence and then I’m on the highway again with about three miles to go. Now it’s downhill, with the mountains closing in all around me. At about 19 miles I begin walking up the ramp to the road over the highway, where the motor home is inconspicuously parked.
There’s supposed to be a place called Gary about half a mile north of here by the railroad tracks. I imagine it was a railroad watering station at one time. Like so many places on the map of New Mexico, it exists more in theory than in reality. It’s as if the cartographers said, “Holy shit, there are only about twelve cities in this whole damn state. The rest is just dirt and mountains. We'd better make up some names and scatter them around. Hey, I know! Let's name one over by Lordsburg after Sponge Bob’s pet snail!”
Sunday, November 21, 2010
I-10 exit 55 to exit 34. 22.2 miles/2622.2 total
Sunday, November 21, 2010
9:13 a.m. I’m setting out from exit 55 on I-10, heading down the access road for about 14 miles and then onto the expressway itself for another 8 miles to exit 34, which is the junction with New Mexico 113. Total distance of 22.2 miles.
It’s chilly, in the low 50s, with a very stiff wind blowing at me from the west. It’ll probably get into the mid-60s, tops. I’m sincerely hoping this wind will settle down a bit. Right now it’s coming in at about 30 miles an hour.
Today’s walk will take me past another of those Bowlin truck stop stores, and that’s about it. Another day of little to report other than the fact that I got through it. Tumbleweeds are tumbling to beat the band.
Very soon into the walk I cross from Luna County into Grant County. Silver City, to the north, is the county seat.
At about 2.5 miles I arrive at a rest stop on the south side of I-10, pretty much the same as the one about seven miles back on the north side through which I walked yesterday. It has little shelters containing picnic tables and places for RVs to park. Very civilized. As I am walking through this rather large area, I encounter a man walking the other way. We stop and greet one another. I ask him where he's going and he nods at a tumbleweed and tells me he's following it to see where it will go. I give him a careful look and see from his aspect that he's of something below average intelligence. But hell, he's on a mission. I tell him I'm going in the opposite direction from the tumbleweeds. We nod at each other and part.
This rest stop also has a historical marker; it's about the various uses to which the Indians put the yucca plant, including eating the fruits and flowers, and using the leaves to weave baskets. The yucca is related to the lily. I imagine the long stalks or branches of the flowers make good firewood, too.
I’m seriously wondering if I can do the whole walk today with this wind, which must be gusting to 40 mph. It makes each step take double the effort. I’ll make for the store, at 13.8 miles, and decide then whether I can go on. If I do break it off, it’ll be the first time I’ve done that since I started the journey, but you never know what’s going to happen on any given day.
At about 5.5 miles I pass a sign that says I am at the Continental Divide, elevation 4,585 feet. This is a momentous occasion, because it means that I have crossed the rough north-south line that runs down the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to Mexico, to the west of which the rivers run to the Pacific Ocean, and to the east of which they run to the Atlantic. In theory, at least, it’s downhill from here to California.
Today it’s as if the mountains have been pushed back away for ten or twenty miles. On either side of the highway are thousands of flat acres of yellow grass populated by yuccas and sage. Alongside the access road are the tumbleweeds, either light brown skeletons moving with the wind or hung up and waiting to be freed, or dark green to black ones still connected to the ground. Also, in spots, is a veritable thicket of tall skeletal bushes, six to eight feet high, with bare thick branches at the ends of which dangle brown balls that used to be flowers and are now prickly round burrs the size of ping pong balls. I don’t know what they are, but they look a little like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. On the edge of the pavement, and sometimes even out of the asphalt itself, grow plants about a foot high with little yellow berries hanging from them, and also the occasional gourd vine.
Eventually the paved access road becomes dirt, and in the far western distance I can see a gigantic American flag I know is flying in front of the Continental Divide Trading Post in Separ, at exit 42. It’s there that I’ll decide whether to walk on or hitchhike to the motor home.
The wind has shifted a little, and now is blowing from the southeast, still hard and relentless. About a mile before the exit the succession of Bowlin billboards begins, advertising the usual stuff—fireworks, jewelry, food. This store has no gas.
At one time there was a small community here in Separ. Now I think it qualifies as a ghost town, with a scattered handful of buildings, all lacking doors and windows. Not an old west ghost town but a new west ghost town. There is a large truck repair place that claims to be always open with a mechanic on duty. Maybe so. Also a defunct gas station. Down the road from that is the Continental Divide Trading Post. In front, between what were once gas pumps, sits a rusting 1962 Buick, at an angle. Inside at the wheel is a life-sized skeleton wearing a hat and a New Mexico souvenir t-shirt that says “But it’s a dry heat. . .” Nice touch.
I have my little moment of truth and see I’m not that far behind schedule and decide to press on for the last 8.5 miles. The wind has died down to a relatively gentle ten to fifteen miles an hour, and the blisters on my left foot, while bothersome, are not intolerable. So off I go, armed and fortified with a cappuccino and a Diet Coke, in addition to my water.
The access road stops here, and I must climb another barbed wire fence. After doing so I climb up the embankment to the shoulder of the interstate, nice and smooth after miles of gravel road, and get out my iPod for another installment of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The scary thing about this novel, for me, is that the descriptions of the horrible conditions of the Chicago packing plants and the adulteration of the meat only tend to make me hungry. Think I’ll have a can of potted meat when I get done today. Mechanically separated chicken and beef tripe--nothing like it. Here's a bit of doggerel from the time about a hundred years ago of which Sinclair is writing:
Mary had a little lamb
And when she saw it sicken,
She shipped it off to Packingtown
And now it’s labeled chicken.
I spot a coin which I think might be my first nickel in New Mexico, but when I pick it up I see that it’s a Mexican one-peso piece. Nice looking coin, with silver-colored metal on the outside and a center of copper-colored metal. I see by the internet that there are about 12 pesos to the dollar, and that seems right. This coin looks like it could be somewhere in value between a dime and a nickel.
At about 21 miles I see the signs for exit 34 and New Mexico 113 heading south to a place called Playas. After going up the entrance ramp I cross over the road to a large parking lot in front of an abandoned gas station, where the motor home awaits.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Tunis to Wilna. 19.7 miles/2600 total
Saturday, November 20, 2010
9:40 a.m. Setting out from around mile 7 on New Mexico 418, I'm heading to Exit 55 on I-10, a distance of 19.7 miles. I say I’m walking from Tunis to Wilna, but that’s just to give those of you who look at maps a general idea of where I am. In reality there is no Tunis, and I doubt very much if there’s a Wilna. I daresay they existed once, but now, like New Mexico dust storms, the most one can say is that they “may exist.”
I’m getting a late start because I had to buy propane this morning at one of the RV parks along US 70 in Deming. It’s the first time I’ve bought propane since during the trip down here, in Oklahoma, I think. So a tank of propane, 15 gallons, lasts about a month.
Overhead there are some wispy high clouds, which are blowing to the east, but other than that it’s a typical clear blue sky overhead. Temperature is in the high 50s and going up to about 70 today.
Next to me is my companion for the first hour or two, Red Mountain. And after that will come other mountains. Always other mountains.
I find myself bedeviled by flies today. One after another they light on my neck and arms. As I mentioned once before, these wilderness flies are not adept at avoiding the direct hit—they’re used to being shooed away by a cow’s tail, only to land again. So the death toll at my hands is quite high. Not seven at one blow, like the little tailor, but one by one at least a dozen in the first few miles. If I don’t slap myself into a concussion, I’ll be fine. It’s best to try to get them to land on my arm, and when that happens my kill rate is well over seventy-five percent.
Today’s walk will be punctuated by two rest stops along the highway, so I’m carrying only one bottle of water. Cappuccino and soda and more water await.
Three miles into the walk I encounter two people walking the other way. This doesn’t happen very often. And man in his forties and a teenage boy, perhaps father and son, with backpacks. The boy carries a skateboard. They ask me how far it is into Deming and I tell them. They’re headed for the St. Vincent de Paul store there. They’ve been sleeping outdoors, and seem to have come from Phoenix. Like most serious wayfarers they also talk about getting run out of towns by cops. They seem to be doing what they’re doing out of necessity. I’m always thankful I’ve stayed under the radar as successfully as I have. When the police or the Border Patrol ask I'm just out for a day of hiking.
I come to a solitary house decorated in front with some cedar or juniper bushes sculpted into topiaries—a deer, some birds, and a few other shapes--a nice bit of decor for the passerby.
An hour and a half into the walk I can see in the far distance the Savoy Café, which is the first truck stop I'll come to along I-10. It’s all by itself at the exit. At 7.1 miles, after a quick stop at the Savoy, I proceed down the access road alongside the expressway, New Mexico 418 having ended here. The wind has suddenly picked up and is gusting into my face at about 20 miles an hour.
I come to a succession of billboards advertising the next truck stop, called Butterfield Station. This one’s owned by Bowlin’s, like the two I encountered on the other side of Deming. At 12.6 miles I reach Butterfield Station, which is at a place designated on the map as Gage. According to the internet, Gage is a “former town.” In 1930 it had 102 residents; then it survived as a ghost town for some time, and eventually even the ruins were razed. All that remains is this truck stop, which is pretty much just like the other ones, with the jewelry and moccasins and food and other souvenirs.
Down past the truck stop a grey gravel road takes me next to an RV park, spread out over a mile or so. This place looks pretty nice, and isolated, and I decide to stay here tonight if I don’t see anything better. It has full hookups, so I can have the luxury of not using the generator and of emptying the waste tanks and filling up the water tank in the morning.
As the afternoon wears on the flora changes a bit, and now yuccas predominate. To my left are the Victorio Mountains, and far beyond them to the south the Cedar Mountain Range. Luna County is pretty much empty land. Only Deming qualifies as a city. Columbus is a village of fewer than 2,000, and that's it.
Eventually the gravel road stops and I have to climb the fence and walk along I-10 for a bit. I come to a rest stop on the highway where I find a historical marker. It says this was once Cooke’s Wagon Road. In 1846, while leading the Mormon Battalion to California during the Mexican War, Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke blazed a wagon road from New Mexico to the west coast. The potential use of the route for railroad construction was one of the reasons for the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. Sure enough, the railroad tracks run right by here, although as we know that didn’t happen until almost thirty years after the Gadsden Purchase. Cooke, by the way, went on to become a general in the Union army cavalry during the Civil War, and also was the father-in-law of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. J.E.B. Stuart died after being shot off his horse by a Union private in 1864, while Philip Cooke lived until 1895, dying at the age of 83 in Detroit, Michigan, where he is buried in Elmwood Cemetery, together with such notables as Lewis Cass, Hiram Walker, and Coleman Young.
As the yuccas become more plentiful I become fascinated by the strange twists the flower stalks take as they become bent with the wind and then dry out. I walk along briskly, fascinated by these shapes, while listening to “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and the rest of Blonde on Blonde. Life is good.
At last I see the sign for Exit 55, one mile distant, and I cross to the north side of the highway and climb another barbed wire fence to get to the access road. I’m getting good at negotiating these fences without puncturing my shoes or hands. The motor home is parked just at the exit, which says Quincy. This place, if it ever existed, doesn’t even merit a mention on the map or on the internet. Sometimes I wonder who the hell makes these signs.
Friday, November 19, 2010
New Mexico 549 mile 10 to Tunis. 20.4 miles/2580.3 total
Friday, November 19, 2010
8:58 a.m. and I’m setting out from mile 10 of New Mexico 549, heading west into the City of Deming and out then west onto New Mexico 418, where I’ll end near a place called Tunis. Today’s walk will be 20.4 miles.
It’s another cloudless day, with just a hint of haze in the air, kicked up from the dusty fields. The temperature is in the mid-50s and will get into the high 60s. When I give these weather reports I feel a little like Steve Martin in that movie, I think it was L.A. Story, where he’s a weather man who can film his forecasts a week in advance. I could just about do the same out here. Quite a contrast with the November weather back east, that’s for sure.
I’m walking next to 549 on a dirt access road used by farm implements, alongside a cotton field that hasn’t been picked yet, though it probably will have been by the time I get back to the car. Much of the land this close to Deming is used for agriculture. Besides cotton I see winter wheat and I smell what I think might be a large dairy operation. Sure enough, when I get closer, I see hundreds, maybe thousands, of Holstein cattle in a big feed lot. I love the smell of fermented cow urine in the morning. It smells like . . . piss.
On my left are the rounded foothills and behind them the more jagged peaks of the Florida Mountains. Off to the north is the Cooke Range.
I spent a pleasant day off in Deming yesterday. Visited the Luna County Courthouse, a handsome late 19th century building with a clock tower, nicely renovated inside. In the basement is a little art gallery containing some paintings and a sculpture or two by locals. But the high point of the day was my visit to the Luna Mimbres Museum, housed in an old armory. It had an extremely varied collection of historical and natural items, including large displays of Mimbres Indian pottery, jewelry, western gear, dolls, and the largest collection of geodes I’ve ever seen—thousands of them, from bigger than bowling balls down to marble-sized. There were collections of button hooks, figurines, brass bells, old clothing, you name it. Also featured in the museum were artifacts from various wars, a recreated main street with turn-of-the-century shops, and a few old motor vehicles. Altogether, for a city the size of Deming--slightly more than 14,000 in 2000--it was the most impressive local museum I’ve seen. I imagine the city fathers (and more likely the city mothers) have been very busy developing it over the years. Well worth the visit if you’re ever in Deming. And it’s free—all they ask for is a donation.
This morning is as good a time as any to talk about the Gadsden Purchase, since I am walking along the northern edge of it. The Gadsden Purchase, as school children know, was where we bought land from Mexico, in 1853-4, a few years after the Mexican War. Today this land forms the southern portions of Arizona and, to a lesser extent, New Mexico. That’s about all they tell you in school, at least as far as I remember. But like so much of the history of the western parts of this country there simmers beneath the surface the grim reality of motives more sinister than Manifest Destiny and exuberant territorial expansion. The real agenda, as with the supposedly noble and heroic war for Texas Independence, was the expansion of slavery into the west and the protection of the increasingly independent-minded south from the economic influence of the north.
James Gadsden was a South Carolinian who negotiated the treaty with Mexico that led to the purchase of this land. Most of it is in Arizona south of the Gila River, including today the cities of Tucson and Yuma, but a little is in New Mexico, south of a line west from the Rio Grande just below Las Cruces. Until the purchase, what is now Deming was on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. James Gadsden, like many of his contemporaries who infested the U.S. Government in the decades leading up to the Civil War, was an ardent lover of slavery. He considered it “a great social blessing” and wished to extend it into as many western territories as possible. In fact, he advocated that South Carolina secede from the Union as early as 1850, unhappy that California had been admitted as a free state. He and some cronies went out there to try to convince the California legislature to divide the state into two states, northern and southern, with the southern one allowing slavery. Fortunately, this plan went nowhere.
The impetus for the purchase of this land from Mexico came from the desire of the southerners to build a transcontinental railroad along an extreme southern route, terminating in San Diego or thereabouts, so that the south wouldn’t be at the mercy of railroads farther to the north. They were thinking ahead already to the time when they would have a separate country and be forever free to enslave and brutalize their fellow humans. They thought the middle and northern sections of the Arizona Territory (which then included New Mexico) would be too mountainous for a railroad. These guys, including then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, had in mind that the southern states would need a railroad line independent from those being developed in the north, all the better to expand slavery and allow southern trade with the Orient. But most southerners didn’t want to invest the money, so the plan never developed, and a railroad in these parts didn’t come into existence until 1881, when the Southern Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railways met in Deming and a silver spike was driven to commemorate the event. That's when the modern city of Deming was founded.
Deming was named for Mary Ann Deming Crocker, wife of Charles Crocker, one of the big time railroad magnates, along with Leland Stanford and a few others. When it was founded, Deming was given the nickname “New Chicago,” because people actually thought it would become such a huge railroad town that it would rival Chicago some day. Oh well.
I pass the entrance to the St. Clair Winery, one of several in the Deming area, and also the Solitaire Deming Manufactured Homes plant, the first real factory I’ve seen in quite some time in this otherwise agricultural area.
I stop in a cemetery just inside the Deming city limits. The dead include the names Arenibas; Gonzalez; Cathey; Corbett; and Leon L. Godchaux, whose stone says “Sturdy, Faithful, True. Thy trail is ended, thy rest is won.” Then there are Verma Lee Downs, Milburn C. Childs, Luther Wright. I sit down on the stone of Gertrude May Howell, who died December 19, 1903, aged 30 years, 6 months, and 5 days. I find that stone to be a bit wobbly, so I go over to the Chandler family plot and sit on one of theirs. Altogether this is a large necropolis, probably containing most of the folks who ever died in Deming, and with lots more room. So fear not, ye denizens of Deming, when your trail is ended and your rest is won, your resting place will be waiting.
Several RV parks are arrayed along US 70, the main east-west drag, which is called Pine Street. Across the street there’s a golf course and some condominiums, in the southwestern adobe style. Leisure living. In other words, old people.
I pass a body shop. In front sits a turquoise and white Pontiac coupe from about 1947, very sharp, with one of those visors over the windshield. Just past that is a restored royal blue 1964 Mustang, with some fancy chrome wheels.
At 11.9 miles I pass the Walmart where I've spent the past two nights and will stay tonight. Like the one in Las Cruces it was filled with fifteen to twenty RVs of all kinds each night. Curiously, on every light post is a sign warning “No Overnight Parking, Violators Will Be Towed.”
The old railroad station is now the visitors' center. A sign over the doorway says the elevation of Deming is 4335 feet. Next door at a shabby restaurant advertising "MENUDO."
At the corner of Pine and Silver Streets I look south for about six blocks and see the Luna County Courthouse. Also down that street is the Luna Mimbres Historical Museum. I pass the Si Senor Restaurant, where I ate a good meal last night, sopapilla included. And a fine sopapilla it was.
I’ve now entered the west side of the city and am beginning to pull away, past the First Baptist Church, McDonald’s, Taco Bell. I pass a few craftsman-style houses from the early 20th century. I haven’t seen many older buildings with identifiable aspects of traditional eastern architecture in New Mexico. Most of the new stuff is southwestern adobe style, but the majority of the houses are functional prefabricated places.
Down at Sonic I turn left on Ninth Street and hook up with New Mexico 418, which veers southwest out of town before straightening out and going west, parallel with I-10. I pass the Red Mountain Middle School and the Bataan Elementary School. Off in the distance slightly to the south is Red Mountain itself, a solitary peak which the map says is 5442 feet high.
I pass more cotton fields, newly picked and turned over, with modules sitting near the road ready to be taken to the gin. A couple of trucks are carrying modules back toward Deming. I pass a large vineyard, and a few hundred acres of fields that were planted in chili peppers, and across the road from that a chili processing facility.
At last the houses become fewer and farther between. Just me and the desert and Red Mountain. The top of the motor home comes into view about half a mile distant.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
New Mexico Route 549, mile 30 to mile 10. 20.2 miles/2559.9 total
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
9:30 a.m. I park my car on the side of the road very near the 30-mile marker on New Mexico 549, near Exit 116 on I-10. I’m headed to mile 10, in Luna County, a distance of 20.2 miles.
Surprise surprise, it is a clear and cloudless day, a little warmer and less windy than yesterday. It should get into the high 60s.
Far behind me, still visible in the blue distance, are the jagged Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces, and in front of me, getting closer, are the Florida Mountains, south of Deming.
I’ve just done something I’ve always wanted to do. Perhaps I could have before, but today this road I’m on is so lightly traveled that I am able to stand in the middle of it and urinate on the yellow line, with no car to be seen for miles in either direction. I know that might seem a frivolous or even crass goal to some of my readers, but speaking as someone who has been pissing outdoors for over 2500 miles, in cornfields, behind trees and abandoned buildings, next to mesquite bushes and yuccas, the freedom to bleed the lizard in the open, here in God’s country, has been a consummation devoutly to be wished, in the words of the Bard.
Well, it stands to reason, based on the above, that I’ll be able to walk on the road most of the time as well, which is a good thing, because there’s no shoulder on this narrow route and the roadside is fraught with brambles and burrs of all kinds, though the dirt is hard packed, at least. I just pulled another inch-long mesquite thorn from the bottom of my shoe. Makes me think of a line from Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind": "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!"
I haven’t yet mentioned cattle guards. Usually they are on the driveways at the entrances to ranches, but sometimes they’re on the main roads, too. These are grates across the road, about six feet wide, which consist of a series of iron or steel bars perpendicular to the road over a ditch perhaps a foot or two deep. Sometimes the bars look like old pieces of rail, sometimes they are cylindrical tubular pieces three or four inches in diameter, and sometimes they are square tubes, but they are always placed several inches apart, which makes them easy to drive over, and for humans to walk on if they’re careful, but apparently difficult or impossible for dim-witted quadrupeds to negotiate. Hence they keep cattle from crossing places where a gate would be impracticable. They’re commonplace, and I’ve been seeing them since Texas. For quite some time I observed them but didn't realize their purpose. I thought they were covers for drainage ditches, until once I saw a sign on the road that read "Cattle Guard." Sometimes I'm a slow study.
At 5.1 miles I say goodbye to Doña Ana County and enter Luna County. Its county seat is Deming, toward which I’m heading. It was in the southern Luna County town of Columbus where Pancho Villa staged his raid on March 16, 1916. U.S. soldiers stationed nearby responded with a couple of machine guns. Eighteen Columbus residents and soldiers were killed along with about 75 of Villa’s men. The whole thing lasted a few hours. It was, I believe, the last military invasion of the continental United States.
I get a ride offer from a nice old guy. He stops his truck in the road and I stand in the middle talking to him for about fifteen minutes, without a single vehicle going by. His name is Ed, and he was a deputy sheriff in Luna County for thirteen years. He’s got a daughter who lives in Troy, Michigan, so we had our small world moment. Ed’s into something called geocaching, which is a sort of treasure-hunting game in which people use GPS devices to find hidden containers, called geocaches. It’s done all over the world, according to Ed. I've never heard of it, but I’ll bet some of my readers have.
At 6.4 miles I come to a narrow bridge over some railroad tracks, after which I enter a place the map says is Cambray. I don’t think this was ever anything but a railroad watering stop back in the days of steam locomotives. A couple of decaying adobe buildings and an old wooden tower give evidence that at some time there might have been a small community. Now I don’t think anyone lives here.
The railroad tracks are still very much in use, however, and a couple of Union Pacific freight trains roll by within minutes of each other and in opposite directions, pulling a hundred cars each.
I noticed something when I was talking to Ed, and I notice this whenever I talk to older people or cops or ex-cops or ex-military people or those who have an affinity for guns. These folks seem to have an inordinate fear of crime. They see it everywhere. Deep inside them their fear of the Other—those who look and act different, the lower classes, foreigners, and what they see as the criminal element—preys on them much more than it does on people like me, for example, who don’t have any guns and don’t spend any time thinking about them. It’s ironic; you’d think people who are heavily armed would be less afraid, but they’re not. Aren’t guns supposed to make you more secure? I guess not, if you live in a world of guns.
I can see why people in law enforcement get burned out and cynical about the rest of the world, though. They must arm themselves mentally as well as physically every day. I had a glimpse of that mentality, on a much less lethal level, during the seven years I spent working on psychiatric admission wards. You never knew when you were going to have to fight someone, and even though the deck was stacked in favor of the staff, there were those moments when you’d find yourself alone with a guy who might be so crazy that he saw you as his mortal enemy or even as the devil. He might think he’s fighting for his life, and suddenly you’re the one fighting for your life. It only takes one or two of those experiences to put you a bit on edge each day and to firmly establish that "us versus them" mentality. I can only imagine how much worse it would be if firearms were involved.
I begin seeing a succession of billboards for another of those old west stores. This one is called Akela Flats, named after Akela, a town a mile or so north of the interstate, which the map calls a ghost town. If you ask me, any number of defunct little villages could be called ghost towns, but perhaps this one has more extant empty buildings. In any case, Akela Flats is nothing but a big store with cornball painted facades made to look like a comic version of an old west town.
I leave New Mexico 549 and walk along the railroad tracks to the other side of the expressway. Soon I strike off in the direction of the billboards, bushwhacking over the desert while little lizards and a jackrabbit dart across my path, until I come to a pair of ruts that suggests a road, which in turn leads to a paved access road, leading to the store.
Inside it’s filled with jewelry, footwear, leather, fireworks, candy, cheesy western souvenirs, and convenience foods. It’s owned by Bowlin's, the same outfit that owns the Old West place where I stopped yesterday. I get some refreshment and head diagonally back to the south side of the interstate, fueled by caffeine.
I start to see bits of cotton on the roadside and I know it’s growing not far from here. A tarp-covered truck passes me, carrying a module to a gin somewhere. This is the first cotton I’ve seen since over by Hobbs and Lovington. I pick up a piece from the ground and pull it for a bit. It looks like short staple, less than an inch.
At 17.6 miles, looking into the gradually setting sun, I come to the intersection of 549 and Franklin Road. A lone house stands at the corner, dogs barking. As I squint into the distance I can see a cloud of dust in the foreground of the Florida Mountains. This must be where they’re harvesting the cotton.
With less than a mile to go the sun is just a couple of degrees above the slope of the mountains. The motor home comes into view from behind a mesquite, next to a cotton field that’s waiting to be picked in the dry evening.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Las Cruces to somewhere in Doña Ana County. 18 miles/2539.7 total
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
9:50 a.m. I am setting out from the corner of Frontage Road and Harry Burrill Road near the Las Cruces airport, heading west alongside and sometimes on I-10 to a spot on New Mexico 549, 18 miles from here. Today’s walk is a little shorter than usual and I’m getting started a little late because I had to buy and install a battery for the motor home this morning.
It’s an absolutely clear day, with the temperature in the high 50s, going up into the mid-60s. There’s a breeze from the west. Behind me stand the jagged peaks of the Organ Mountains and the San Augustin Pass, 25 miles away but still looming very large in the distance.
Today I'll have to walk along the side of I-10 for a bit, and although pedestrians technically are not allowed on interstates, I anticipate no problem. There really is no alternative in spots and the authorities know this.
Tonight I’ll go back and stay again at Walmart in Las Cruces. After staying at the one on the east side for a few days, off I-25, I’m now staying at the one on the west side of the city, near I-10, about seven miles east of where I start today’s walk. I don’t usually backtrack like that, but right around here the border patrol is pretty active, and I don’t wish to attract any attention by parking overnight on the highway. Besides, this Walmart is so accommodating that it’s really quite delightful. I don’t know when I’ve seen so many motor homes at one time at a Walmart. There were at least a dozen, and the security guard who drives around in his little truck stopped by and welcomed me when I arrived, advising me on the quietest place to park and recommending some places to eat nearby. He asked me where I was from in Michigan, then told me he used to live in the Chicago area and vacationed on Lake Michigan, at Pentwater. Small world.
The highway signs around here are quite civil and genteel in their tone. I pass one that says, “Notice: Prison Facilities in This Area. Please Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” I would think that “DANGER. Prison Area. Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers” would be more to the point, but they say “please” as if you would be doing them and not yourself a favor by forgoing the opportunity to pick up an escaped criminal.
On long walks through nothing, such as this one promises to be, I listen to my iPod as the afternoon wears on—sometimes to music, but more often to recorded books. I just finished listening to The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, a very engaging book about the nature of epidemics, not only of disease, but of various human behaviors. This is at least the third book by Gladwell I’ve listened to. Just yesterday I started listening to The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. I don’t think I’ve read that one since high school. Which reminds me that somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area there’s an Upton Sinclair house, and I’ll have to make a point of visiting that when I get out there, just as I visited Terre Haute, Indiana, the home town of Theodore Dreiser, as I was reading Sister Carrie. Sinclair was a dedicated socialist, as was Dreiser and of course Dreiser’s fellow Terre Haute native, Eugene V. Debs.
At 3 miles into the walk, still on Frontage Road, I come to the first of about a dozen billboards for a place called the Old West. This is one of those stores that inundate you with billboards, like a much smaller version of South of the Border in Dillon, South Carolina, well known to all travelers on I-95 up and down the east coast.
At 5.4 miles I reach this emporium, Bowlin’s Old West Trading Post, and go inside for some refreshment. Back outside I sit on a guard rail and enjoy my coffee and eat lunch. Afterwards I cross over I-10 and now am walking on the south side of the highway. I see that the road here is called the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway. Since they commemorate the Bataan Death March every year between Alamogordo and Las Cruces by holding a hellacious marathon across the desert, I wonder if they commemorate Pearl Harbor Day in a similar way over here, maybe by flying over the expressway and dropping bombs and strafing passing motorists. I’m sure there are any number of people around here who would eagerly volunteer for such an assignment. Yeeee-haaaa!
About a mile after I cross the highway the paved access road veers off to the south, and I stay to the right on a dirt road, which soon becomes two rocky and sandy ruts. It’s covered with animal tracks—horses, cloven-hoofed animals, coyotes, birds. I wish I knew more about how to identify them. In the summer I suspect the rattlesnakes and scorpions would be a consideration here, but now it’s cool enough that they’ve retreated underground.
At one time camels roamed this area. In the mid-1800s the army brought some over from the Middle East for use here in the Southwest. They proved very well suited to the terrain and climate, and were working out, except that they tended to spook the horses and mules. With the outbreak of the Civil War the camel experiment was largely forgotten, and many of them escaped into the desert and became feral. Camel sightings throughout the Southwest continued into the early 20th century, with the last one being in 1941 in Texas. But who knows?
Finally even this little rough path disappears, and it’s time for me to climb over the barbed wire fence and get up on the highway, which I manage to do with the dexterity of a pollo coming up from Old Mexico. I acquire a number of burrs on my pants and shoes, and after pulling them off I am marching along the shoulder of I-10 against a very strong headwind of perhaps 30 mph.
At 12.2 miles I pass the U.S. Border Patrol inspection station, which is on the other side of the road, for cars heading west. No one seems to notice this fence jumper.
Another example of the elevated tone of the highway signs is this one: “Dust Storms May Exist Next 15 Miles.” Some dedicated state employee whose first language is not English must have come up with that one. And a philosopher to boot. Not “Dust Storms Possible,” or “Watch for Dust Storms,” mind you, but “Dust Storms May Exist.” Or they may not, depending on whether we acknowledge them. What, after all, is this thing called existence but the sum total of our perceptions? Dust storms might exist without us, but what meaning would they have? As Descartes said, cogito ergo sum; je pense donc je suis.
Off to the south is a line of pointed peaks rising from the desert floor. Some of these mountains probably are in Mexico. One of them looks like a breast, topped with a nipple. At least it does to me.
After five miles on the interstate I negotiate a passage through some prickly tumbleweeds and climb another barbed wire fence to get onto Frontage Road 1028, which will take me to New Mexico 549 down at Exit 116. Near this exit there’s a small collection of houses on either side of the expressway. This might qualify as a community of some kind, but there’s no name on the map.
A couple of Border Patrol guys in a white SUV stop on 549 to ask me if I need a ride, but don’t seem interested beyond that gesture of courtesy. In another mile and a half is the motor home, and the end of another day.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Organ to Las Cruces. 20.2 miles/2521.7 total
Monday, November 15, 2010
9:15 a.m. I’m leaving from a little west of Organ, at US 70 and Weisner Road, heading west on 70 through Las Cruces and out the other side to a spot near the airport, a distance of 20.2 miles.
It’s chilly today and mostly cloudy, although the sun does shine from time to time. And the clouds are lower and thicker than they’ve been. Right now the temperature is in the 50s, and I expect it to get into the low 60s. A light breeze is blowing in from the west.
During the time I wasn’t walking I let a spot on the sole of my left foot heal, where a large thorn had gone through the bottom of my shoe and punctured the skin. I removed the thorn, or thought I had done so, but a little piece of it remained in there, and began to get inflamed. So that’s cleared up now. Also I drove around Las Cruces and the campus of New Mexico State University, the land grant university located here. NMSU, home of the Aggies, is a school of over 18,000 students, founded in 1888. I also took a trip with the motor home back up the San Augustin Pass, where I camped one night and then visited the White Sands National Monument again and walked the dunes. Very peaceful and beautiful in an otherworldly way.
Yesterday I visited with two new friends, Glenda and Doug Baker, who were recommended to me by my old friend Billie Bob. They live in a very nice place up here on the east side of the city, and I had dinner and conversation with them. I’d like to thank them again for their hospitality, and I hope I have an opportunity to get to know them better in the future. It’s always a pleasure to meet people in the places I go through.
As easy as it is for me to get addicted to leisure, it’s time to get addicted to walking once again, so here I am, hitting the dusty trail.
Along this stretch of US 70 the housing developments are beginning to take shape and I can see subdivisions of tan and beige and pale red houses, some in frame style and many in the classic Southwestern adobe style, like Doug and Glenda’s house.
I pass the Hacienda Baptist Church, where the sign says “Bikers Welcome.” Right. I can see that happening. I pass the East Mesa Memorial Pool, a nice new recreation center, and a little farther down is the East Mesa Laundry. So that must be the name of this area, although it’s not on the map as such.
Here in mid-November the trees are beginning to turn yellow and brilliant orange—the aspens and cottonwoods and various ornamental fruit trees that landscapers have planted.
At about 3.5 miles into the walk I come to the first gas station I’ve passed since Alamogordo, some 65 miles back—Shorty’s Gas and Liquor. And there’s Shorty, looking like Yosemite Sam on a sign above the pumps. Right next to that is Big Daddy’s Marketplace, with a fifteen-foot-high statue of Big Daddy, wearing green pants and a white shirt and a droopy Mexican-style moustache. It’s a flea market, but it’s closed today. Next to that is a huge brown and white bull, perhaps ten feet high, bearing a sign that reads “El Toro says shop here.”
I stop in a convenience store where I buy a cappuccino (which I like to mix about two-thirds/one-third with regular coffee) and also to bask in the incredible array of stuff they have in these little stores, and to enjoy being back in a city after so many miles of nothing. I like the scenery and quiet of the countryside, but on the whole I prefer going through cities and settled areas where people are outside walking and not just zooming past in their cars. As I get to Roadrunner Parkway I look south a few miles and I can see the area where Doug and Glenda live.
As in Texas, here in New Mexico they take care to decorate their highway interchanges a bit. At 6.5 miles, at the intersection of US 70 and I-25, the highway overpasses have nice stone work and rich red coloring and even a little decorative frieze of a mountain motif that repeats itself along the bridges.
I forgot to mention at the end of my previous walk that I have reached the 2500 mile mark on this trip. That would have been enough miles to get to the west coast if I'd taken the most direct route from Michigan. As it is I’ll be walking for another 700 to 800 miles. But I wouldn't have wanted to miss any of this.
Past the expressway things get more congested. I pass the usual array of businesses—Lowe’s, K-mart, Walgreens, fast food places—and this feels like a major commercial center. Actually Telshor Boulevard, which runs north-south parallel to I-25 on the east side, is considered the major business district, along with Lohman Ave., but US 70, also called N. Main Street here, has a lot going on. These strips have pretty much replaced the downtown business district. Downtown is the Doña Ana County Courthouse, a handsome white adobe-style structure.
The City of Las Cruces was laid out by the U.S. military in 1849, right after the Mexican War. The community of Mesilla, immediately to the southwest of Las Cruces, was originally larger than Las Cruces. But in 1860, when the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad came through, Mesilla refused to sell it a right of way. Las Cruces donated the right of way to the railroad, and eventually it became larger than Mesilla. Today, with over 93,000 people, it is the second-largest city in the state. Albuquerque is the largest, with over half a million, Rio Rancho is third, and the capital, Santa Fe, is fourth.
The name Las Cruces means “the crosses” in Spanish. Wikipedia claims the origin of the name is unknown. Some people suggest that it might have to do with crossroads, but this is implausible because the word for crossroad is masculine, and that would require the name of the city to be Los Cruces. I think the meaning is pretty straightforward, given the Spanish and Mexican tendency to name things after Christian saints and other religious iconography, and that it was named after the three crosses of Jesus and the two thieves. This symbol or three crosses shows up fairly often on signs. When I see it, it reminds me of a bit from "Desperados Under the Eaves" by Warren Zevon:
Don't the sun look angry through the trees,
Don't the trees look like crucified thieves....
I pass the Las Cruces Country Club, then the Academia Dolores Huerta, a middle school. Dolores Huerta is shown on a painting on the awning over the front door, standing in a vegetable field wearing an apron bearing the United Farm Workers symbol. She was the co-founder of the UFW, with Cesar Chavez. Born in Dawson, New Mexico, she grew up near Stockton, California. She’s been involved in politics and labor organizing for most of her adult life and is now 80 years old.
At 10.2 miles, down toward the center of the city, US 70 turns right and heads west again under the name Picacho Avenue. For the first time since I started back on the walk three weeks ago, I feel a drop or two of rain. I always carry my emergency poncho for such occasions. It starts to sprinkle off and on.
As I pass the Doña Ana County District Court a squall begins to blow through, carrying almost as much dust as moisture. As Picacho Avenue continues west the businesses become modest and local, including several antique stores. One is open, S.O.B. Antiques, and I go in and buy four pocket knives.
Down and across from S.O.B. is an Aamco Transmission place where out on the sidewalk stands a sculpture of a woman made from a transmission and some miscellaneous parts. Very clever and nicely done. She holds the mail box.
I’m going through the area called Picacho, with Picacho Peak off in the distance to the north. Suddenly the rain gets very heavy and I have to break out the emergency poncho. But by the time I finish wrestling with the thing, which is blowing all over the place, and get it on, the rain begins to subside. In the process the poncho rips down one side, but that’s okay, I keep a supply of them in the motor home.
I come to the Rio Grande, in front of which is an historic marker. It says the Rio Grande originates in the mountains of Colorado and is over 1800 miles long, forming the border between Texas and Mexico. Here it flows more or less straight south. It also formed the original western boundary of Texas when it claimed the eastern half of New Mexico. The Rio Grande is pretty dry right now, with only two shallow streams about ten feet wide. Crossing this river I feel that I have symbolically crossed out of the ambit of Texas and am now in the far west.
In front of a house I see a large bush with fruits that look like apples growing on it. On closer inspection, and after talking to the guy standing out front, I realize they’re pomegranates. He invites me to take as many as I would like. I thank him and pick one, which I open with my knife to scoop out the little kernel-like seeds and drink the purple juice. Refreshing. An old world fruit, the pomegranate was introduced to this continent by the Spanish in 1769 and is now cultivated for its juice, particularly in California and Arizona.
Out here on the edge of town, next to the Fairacres Baptist Church, is a cemetery--a memorial garden to be exact. I sit on a bench dedicated to the Dr. Willie P. Isaacs family and relax for a few minutes. In front of me reposes Dr. Willie P. himself, who died four years ago. Some of the other surnames I see are Radtke, Wagner, Guillen, Telles, Struffalino, Lucero, Perez, Hernandez, and Candelaria. It reads like a baseball lineup card.
From the cemetery I begin a long steady uphill climb toward the airport. It’s cooling down, with about an hour of daylight left, as I turn onto the road that branches off of US 70 toward the airport. I’m walking parallel to I-10 now.
At last the motor home comes into view right past Harry Burrill Road.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Otero/Doña Ana County line to Organ. 20.6 miles/2501.5 total
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
9:30 a.m. I’m setting forth from the side of the road near mile 179 on US 70, just a little east of the Otero/Doña Ana (pronounced Doñana) County line, heading to a spot about three miles west of the village of Organ, a distance of 20.6 miles.
Today’s walk will take me up and over the San Andres Mountains through the San Augustin Pass and into the flat lands below.
No clouds, and it’s about 60 degrees. I have a very clear view of the mountains to my right and directly in front of me. The wind is blowing in stiffly from the west, though, pushing against me as I walk.
Like yesterday, I won’t have any places to stop for refreshment, so I’m carrying everything I'll need. The gas stations don’t start for another three miles or so past the vacant lot where the motor home is parked.
Not long into the walk I come to a historic marker telling about the disappearance of Albert J. Fountain and his son Henry. Albert Jennings Fountain was a Civil War veteran, New Mexico legislator, and prominent lawyer. On February 1, 1896 he and his eight-year-old son Henry were traveling home to Masilla (south of Las Cruces) from Lincoln. They carried grand jury indictments against cattle rustlers. Father and son disappeared at Chalk Hill and their bodies were never found. In 1899 Oliver Lee and James Gilliland were tried for their murder. Both were acquitted. And that’s all the marker says. I suppose Chalk Hill is near here.
There is a bit more to the Fountain story than what was provided on the marker. It seems that old Albert J. had cheated death on more than one occasion before his luck ran out. Born in Staten Island in the 1830s, he moved to Sacramento, California and became a newspaper reporter, from whence he went to report on the exploits of William Walker, an American southerner who had gone down to Central America with a private army and set himself up as president of Nicaragua in 1857. Fountain's newspaper dispatches angered Walker, who had him put in prison and sentenced to be shot, but he escaped and returned to California. Immediately after serving in the Union Army in the Civil War he joined the New Mexico volunteers as an Indian fighter. While fighting Apaches he was wounded and trapped under his dead horse overnight with a bullet in his thigh, an arrow in his arm, and another arrow in his shoulder. Later he served in the post-war Texas legislature as a Radical Republican, where he encountered the enmity of a number of Texas Democrats and fought several duels, killing at least one man. In the 1870s he moved back to Masilla, New Mexico, his wife's home, where he became a district attorney and started a newspaper and eventually went into private law practice. In 1881 he represented Billy the Kid on a murder charge, but lost the case. His client escaped from jail, which seems like the usual response to a death sentence in those days, killing both his guards. Not long afterwards Billy the Kid was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett (father, as you may recall, of Elizabeth, the author of the New Mexico state song and the first teacher at the school for the blind in Alamogordo).
Fountain then ran for the New Mexico territorial legislature against Albert Bacon Fall, another Las Cruces area lawyer and land owner, defeating him once and losing to him once. At the time he and his son disappeared Fountain was obtaining an indictment against Oliver Lee, a noted rancher and gunman (and friend of Albert Fall's), for cattle rustling. Although Fountain's body and that of his son were never found, authorities did find two pools of blood and some other blood-soaked personal effects. Lee and his employee Gilliland and another thug named Billy McNew were acquitted of the murders in 1899, after being brought in by none other than Pat Garrett. Their lawyer was Lee's friend Albert Fall. Albert Fall would go on to become one of the first pair of U.S. Senators from New Mexico, but not before successfully defending Lee's brother-in-law, J.J. Cox, for his alleged involvement in the 1908 shooting of Pat Garrett. Fall was appointed Secretary of the Interior under Warren G. Harding. A few years later, after being convicted of taking a bribe to provide no-bid oil leases to several companies on land owned by the Navy in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, Fall became the first cabinet member ever to be sent to prison.
I leave Otero County and enter Doña Ana County. Las Cruces is its county seat and the second largest city in New Mexico. It lies beyond the mountains that loom before me.
Before I leave the Alamogordo and White Sands region, I should mention that I’ve been listening to a series on local public radio about the Alamogordo Primate Facility. I mentioned that they used chimps in the early years of the space program, and that they housed them at Holloman Air Force Base. I don’t think they use them for that purpose anymore, since humans have been going into space for fifty years. But evidently they keep a bunch of chimps around, and the military is caring for them, but also interested in dealing them off to the NIH and drug companies for biomedical research. I might have the facts a little wrong there, but you get the idea. Some people are up in arms about the treatment of the chimps, some of which have been kept in little cages for years. They’d like to “rehabilitate” them and put them in parks and preserves. It’s a minor cause célèbre in the Alamogordo area.
I might as well weigh in on the subject. I think our practice of using animals other than humans for experimentation is a natural outgrowth of our essentially predatory nature. We raise and kill animals to eat them and wear their skins in the form of leather and furs or to feed them to other animals, so it stands to reason that we might wish to use them for experiments that we’re not so sure would be safe if performed on us--sacrificing animals in yet another way for the good of humans. If one eats animals, how can one object to experimenting on them, provided the experiments aren’t completely frivolous? But people do object, and they do draw arbitrary lines. Kill and eat, okay. Inject with experimental vaccines, not okay. I don’t see a clear distinction there. If one objects to both the eating and the experimentation, that's consistent.
What’s lurking in the background of the chimp controversy is one of my hobby horses, the notion that we shouldn’t mess with certain animals because they’re almost like us because they share almost all of our DNA, or are cute and cuddly, or are relatively intelligent. That strikes me as a very self-centered position for our species to take. Why do we care so much about animals that are almost like us, or ones that wag their tails when we come in the door, or rub up against our legs and purr? Because we are stuck on ourselves as a species, and wish to protect the animals that seem most like us or gratify us in some way. It’s all about us, not the other animals. Modified vegetarians even partake of this attitude when they suggest that the best or healthiest animals to eat are birds or fish, rather than mammals. But when we encounter an animal that is very dissimilar to us, like a spider, we’ll stand on a chair until someone steps on it.
Oddly, some people who object to using animals for experimentation think the use of human volunteers is more "humane" (giving an intriguing meaning to the word). But such volunteers usually are prisoners or other down-and-outers who may have opted for being the subject of an experiment as the lesser of several evils, rather than out of a sense of adventure or altruism. Any way you look at it, some species is being exploited. Better them than us, I say.
I see a live jackrabbit, running like crazy through the sagebrush and mesquite. After all this talk about animals, the sight of this one makes me hungry.
After 4.5 miles I come to a collection of buildings set back from the road about half a mile. This is the White Sands Small Missile Testing Facility. I don’t know whether the facility is small, or the missiles are, or both. In the distance I hear jets, or maybe missiles, breaking the sound barrier.
I’ve seen half a dozen large hairy brown spiders dead on the roadside. I don’t keep statistics on insects or arachnids, but the spiders are out here, along with the fat dying grasshoppers.
After the small missile facility I begin in earnest my five mile long ascent through the mountain pass. The wind has picked up and is pummeling me at 25 or 30 miles an hour. It’s becoming chilly.
At 9 miles I reach the main exit for the headquarters of the White Sands Missile Range and its museum and gift shop. After that as I proceed up a very steep hill I get far enough into the mountains that the wind is blocked a bit. This ascent is much steeper than the one to Cloudcroft was.
All throughout New Mexico so far I’ve been seeing gourds growing wild along the roadside on vines twenty or more feet long. They’re round, about the size of tennis balls or baseballs. They turn yellow when they dry out, but I pick up a green one and cut it open to taste the flesh to see if it is edible. After all, this is the same family of vegetables as pumpkins and squashes. The taste is so bitter that I spit it out immediately, and the bitterness stays in my mouth for a half hour or more. Hope I don’t die, for Christ’s sake.
At 13.8 miles I pass the entrance to the Aguirre Spring camp ground. I’m almost to the summit. Soon after, I come to a large Nike Hercules missile at a truck pulloff area. A sign in front of the missile tells the story of the Nike Hercules. They once stood guard around major cities during the Cold War. They were capable of knocking down attacking missiles or carrying nuclear warheads to attack formations of incoming missiles. Testing for the Nike Hercules began in 1955 at White Sands and concluded in 1967, after which it was replaced by the Nike Zeus. And now this Nike missile stands guard over the rest area and its green porta-potties.
Finally I get to the top, and an arduous climb it has been. I’m now at the San Augustin Pass. This pass is the divide between the Tularosa Basin to the east and the Jornada del Muerto to the west. The Jornado del Muerto is the name for the desert basin in which Las Cruces lies. It's Spanish for something like "single day's journey of a dead man." Hmmm. San Augustin Pass is a cut between the Organ Mountains and the San Andres and San Augustin Mountains. Elevation 5,710 feet.
The other side of the mountains presents a wide vista for twenty or thirty miles ahead to the next mountain range, with the desert floor and a few smaller hills in the foreground. I have about two miles of downhill before US 70 levels off for its course into Las Cruces.
At 16.6 miles I enter Organ, which is designated only by a small sign on the highway. It appears that at some time this was a going concern. There are several empty stores and restaurants and a place purporting to be open called Thai Delight. But there is only one vehicle parked in front, and I find it hard to believe this place operates as a restaurant. Probably a front for other activities. There just isn’t enough business around here to sustain a restaurant, especially a crummy-looking one like this in the middle of nowhere.
Organ was once a mining town. Near here from before the Civil War mines produced gold, lead, iron, silver, and other minerals. In 1885 the population was over 1500. Eventually the mines were inundated with water and by the 1930s they closed. The Wikipedia article claims there are 100 households in the vicinity today, many of them homes of employees of the White Sands Missile Range. It has a post office, but is unincorporated.
Highway 70 has become an expressway so I get off the main road and start walking along the access roads on either side. I’m entering some of the far eastern suburban areas of Las Cruces, still ten miles or so away. Although most of the houses hereabouts are prefab or trailers, it’s clear that the area is being prepped for middle class development. The infrastructure is already here, with the highway exits and access roads nicely laid out, and large tracts of land have been leveled and cleared. All that remains is the construction of businesses and houses.