Elk to Wimsatt. 20 miles/2416.6 total
Friday, November 5, 2010
9:25 a.m. I’m setting out from a spot just past Elk, at Mule Canyon Road, heading west on US 82 through the village of Mayhill to a place on the map called Wimsatt. Today’s walk will be 20 miles.
It’s a beautiful day, and I say that with the knowledge that a majority of the days in New Mexico are cloudless. But today the sky seems somehow clearer and bluer. Probably the mountain air. It’s in the high 40s, and expected to get into the high 50s.
Of course I’m walking uphill, but fairly gradually still. As I look around today it strikes me that the countryside is becoming alpine rather than the arid and semi-arid surroundings of the past two days of walking. In the broad meadow to the south of 82, between the road and the mountain ridge the road follows, deciduous trees are plentiful—aspens, alders, some elms, and even a few birches and willows. Up on the hillsides it’s strictly evergreens, mostly junipers, pinyon pines, and now increasingly the taller ponderosa pines, also known as western yellow pines. The higher in elevation I go, the taller the pine trees get.
The stream I remarked on last time runs just a few feet downhill from the road. The water rushes in spots, and occasionally I see small waterfalls. In the meadows on the other side of the stream cattle graze—white face, angus, Hereford, and several other beef breeds. Herds range from a dozen to over a hundred. Lots of cows up here.
Shortly after I start I leave Chaves County and enter Otero County, and then the Lincoln National Forest. There’s a tanker truck on the side of the road that says Mescalero Gas, A Mescalero Apache Enterprise. The Mescalero Apache Reservation is just north of the national forest. They’ve got a casino and a racetrack and a few other things, evidently. Robert Kie, my host the other night, used to be a tribal policeman on the reservation.
Otero County's county seat is Alamogordo, but it also contains this national forest and the reservation and part of White Sands National Monument, to the west, which I’ll be walking through in a few days.
I’ve had two ride offers already, one from a guy in a PVT truck. PVT stands for Penasco Valley Telecommunications, a small private telephone company operating around here. The driver saw me and said, “I shouldn’t even have stopped; I graduated from Ohio State.” And I realized that I’m wearing my Michigan hat today. Usually I wear a camouflage-colored hat. But today I left it in the motor home and used this one because it was in the car. I guess I’ll wear it tomorrow, too, to show my support for the Wolverines as they play the Fighting Illini at noon.
And speaking of bad news coming out of Michigan, I see that Rick Snyder, the Tough Nerd, has won the gubernatorial election, and that the Republicans now control both houses of the state legislature. They’ll probably impose austerity measures on the state, as if things aren’t austere enough already. We’re in for a rollicking time now, not that it’s going to make much difference. They could turn Michigan into the Delaware of the Midwest and eliminate all taxes on corporations and it wouldn’t induce manufacturers to bring in businesses. Rick Snyder of all people knows that, having outsourced all the jobs in his company to the far east. The Tough Nerd. To call both him and Satan nerds is an insult to Satan.
The most disconcerting thing is that the GOP will take credit for the upturn in the economy that’s already begun, even before they get into office. And the people, like a tribe in the jungles of Borneo that prays to the god Ooga Booga because they’re afraid the sun won’t come up, then gives Ooga Booga all the credit when the sun does come up, will think these new assholes actually had a hand in the recovery. The recovery from the shit storm that resulted from eight years of Bush and Cheney and Halliburton and Blackwater and Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers and the purveyors of the fast buck and the free market and the third-tier derivative security. As if you could undo all that in less than two years.
Every now and then I see a sign, made to look like a political campaign sign, that says “Prayer. America’s Only Hope. 2 Chronicles 7:14.” That’s one of those verses from the Old Testament where God says he’ll forgive his people if they turn away from wickedness and seek him. It reminds me that the citizenry around here, particularly the whites, are some seriously reactionary folks. Not just hard-bitten right wingers, but hard-bitten religiously self-righteous right wingers, the worst kind.
Six miles into the walk it’s getting shadier and the trees are getting taller. Some large apple trees grow along the river. Around every bend is another magnificent vista. To my left are the stream and the meadow, several hundred yards wide, and the slope of the Sacramento Mountains. To my right the sheer rock faces where they’ve blasted the hills to make the road.
I see my first fresh deer kill. I’ve seen a few live ones today. On a sign Smokey says the fire danger is low today. The original Smokey the Bear, you may recall, was from New Mexico, rescued from a forest fire as a cub. In his honor, the New Mexico state mammal is the American black bear.
I just finished a pleasant conversation with a mail carrier named Sarahy, who has been noticing me for several days and decided to find out if I was walking for some cause. As my readers know, I’m a rebel without a cause. She delivers the mail out of Artesia, and drives from there to Mayhill and back every day. That’s 70 miles one way. I told her I’d been a mail carrier briefly, and that she had one very large mail route, but a scenic one. She said it can get a little treacherous in the winter when it snows. Like almost everyone who stops, she was friendly and curious. People notice things around here, probably because they have only this one main road to concentrate on, and not a lot happens.
At 9.6 miles I enter Mayhill, a small village with a few churches, whose business district consists of a dozen or so buildings, among them a hair salon, a gas station, a couple of stores, and a hotel with a restaurant. The sign as I enter says “Congested Area.” Well, that’s a relative thing. In the center of town there's a historic marker that refers to a battle between U.S. forces and the Apaches that took place here.
I stop at the Mayhill Convenience Store and the proprietor is friendly. He shows me his left hand, which has the last two fingers missing. He says he was bitten by a rattlesnake and got a fang in each finger and the bites got gangrene so the fingers had to be amputated. As I look around the store I begin to see some virulently mean-spirited right-wing political signs. One says, “Pelosi the Puke,” and the worst by far says, “Don’t Re-Nig in 2012.” I beat a hasty retreat, thinking that the rattlesnake didn’t do its job well enough.
The elevation of Mayhill is 6,578 feet, so I have another two thousand feet to ascend between here and Cloudcroft. Just west of town is the junction with New Mexico Route 130, which goes off to Pinon.
A few miles down the road in front of an abandoned restaurant I have a conversation with a young guy named T.J., who builds houses around here and restores old cars in his spare time. He looks uncannily like the actor Liev Schreiber, but with no front teeth. He lives in an old motor home with flat tires that’s set up right next to his shop. When I tell him about how I do the walk he says he noticed my motor home earlier today. It’s a good thing for me that people are respectful of the property of others.
I get waved over by an Otero County Deputy Sheriff, a guy of about forty. He wonders if I’m okay because some people saw me fifteen or so miles back and contacted him. Then he does his little cop routine where he tries to get as much personal information from me as possible, knowing he doesn’t have any legal basis to make me tell him anything. But I don’t mind giving him my driver’s license, and it’s better to cooperate with these guys as long as they're not trying to hassle you too much; after all he drives up and down the road all day, and I’ll probably see him again tomorrow. When he sees I have a Michigan license, he mentions that he used to visit his grandmother in Pontiac when he was a kid, that she worked at a big department store. “Hudson’s?” I ask. “Yeah, that’s it.” Turns out she worked at the Hudson's at the Pontiac Mall specializing in prosthetic bras for women who’d had mastectomies. So we have our small world moment, and he loosens up and figurs I'm probably harmless.
I see a sign for a Christadelphian camp. The Christadelphians, whose name means “brethren in Christ,” are a small sect that was started in the nineteenth century by an Englishman named John Thomas. They are “biblical unitarians,” which means they believe in God the Father, but not in the trinity. Jesus wasn't God the Son, just the son of God. They've also were conscientious objectors during the major wars in this country and in Britain and Europe. They’re scarce as hen’s teeth now, but they do have this camp up in the New Mexico mountains.
At about 18 miles I come to a place called Cloud Country. There’s a big gate out front and some mailboxes. I guess this is a housing development, although I can’t see any of the dwellings from here. I imagine it would be compelling to come up here in the summer, especially, when it’s 110 degrees down in Alamogordo.
With less than a mile to go I come my first New Mexico cemetery, next to the James Canyon Church, now called the Cowboy Church. Before going into the cemetery I peek in the window of the little one-room church. There’s a lectern in front and behind that a galvanized baptismal tank. Dunkers, not sprinklers. But I notice something on the floor. Little black dots of something. At first it looks like bird droppings, but then I see that it’s thousands of dead flies. All over everything in the church. Evidently the place hasn’t been used lately. T.J. told me that the flies were very bad this year because of a wet spring and summer. Looks like the Lord of the Flies has taken over the House of God.
I go into the cemetery for a few minutes to commune with the dead of James Canyon. It’s overgrown in places with tall grass and weeds, but a few areas have been tended. A mixture of Anglo names and Mexican names. Robert Garcia has a tractor trailer etched on his tombstone. I take a seat next to Pfc. Joe L. Mancillas, who was killed in 1943 in World War Two. There’s nothing like a little respite in a cemetery. So quiet. Across the street the sun is low over the tall trees, but it warms me.
On down the road, around a bend, the motor home comes into view. The map says this little area is the community of Wimsatt. It looks as if Wimsatt was named for G. Gordon Wimsatt, born in 1915, who came here with his parents in 1927. He learned to predict the weather from a guy who was half Apache by studying the changes in bear grease placed inside a scraped-out deer bladder. (You can’t make this stuff up, I swear.) Well, old G. Gordon got so good at it that he did better than meteorologists and other sages and often confounded people who scoffed at his predictions. Many times he'd predict major weather conditions that no one else did, so people finally came to rely on him. He had hundreds of containers of bear grease, and he experimented with other types of grease as well, including human grease taken from around a kidney that he got from a hospital. In 1985 he predicted a major earthquake around Mexico City. He got on Ripley's Believe It Or Not. He died in 1995 at the age of 80.
It’s going to be cold tonight. Already, since the sun went below the trees, the temperature has dropped five or ten degrees. It’s supposed to get down to the low 20s. But I’m going down to Alamogordo, in the desert.