Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Day 134: Thorns of Life
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.