Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Day 131: The Pass
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.