Wonder and Wastelands in the Southwest

Greetings, friends and family!

A few days ago, I celebrated my six month “vanniversary” of living in this behemoth bunkie on wheels. I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve accomplished in the last six months, and have come to the conclusion that while I may not have a job, per se, I have picked up a vocation on the road. I have committed myself full-time to noticing the things that would otherwise be lost in the grind of daily routine and obligations. Things like sunsets, plant smells, the movement of the planets. I pay attention. As I write this, I’m at a rest stop in Texas watching dozens of black vultures soar in lazy vortexes above the Pecos River. I train my binoculars on them to make out their white wing tips and to try and understand the mad choreography of fifty birds flying corkscrews without ever running into one another. It is such a privilege to live at a pace that allows such familiarity with the landscape and the sun, wind, water, plants and creatures that occupy it. In six months, I think I’ve come to appreciate this. I won’t be able to do this forever, and will someday have to go back to a life that will get in the way of such small courtesies – so I’m just glad to have what I have right now, which is ample time and space to pick my way through the world.

Since my last missive, I spent a few weeks in New Mexico. Since most of New Mexico (and almost all the cool stuff in the state) is located at six thousand feet above sea level and gets well below freezing every night, I had to stick to the southern edge of the country in order to stay warm. I did a few nights in the area around Las Cruces, about an hour north of the border, where the Organ Mountains tower like church spires above the city. Just south of Las Cruces, El Paso was a long, ugly smear of a city, sprawling out for miles and miles on both sides of the border. I didn’t linger long. I visited White Sands National Park, where the rolling white gypsum sand dunes kept tricking my eyes into believing I was driving and walking on snow – I kept bracing myself to slip and fall on the ice. It’s a dreamy expanse of pure white, a landscape unlike any I’ve encountered. The sand is so fine and soft that people sled down the dunes on plastic saucers, shrieking with laughter. I thought it would be kind of weird to go sledding alone in my cloud of silence, so instead I walked around following the little footprints of pocket mice and foxes, trying to track them to their dens.

Posing in White Sands National Park

Most of southern New Mexico is open space and land: air bases, missile testing sites, fenced-off ranchlands, and the Chihuahuan Desert. I drove hours without seeing anything except border checkpoints staffed by painfully bored young men. This has its benefits, though; for one, the sunsets are incredible. Unimpeded views of kaleidoscopic colour progressions: the eastern sky moving from daylight blue to purple to indigo to black, while the western sky moves from yellow to orange to pink to red to grey as the last sunray disappears below the horizon. And the night skies are crisply clear, so when the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction occurred a few weeks ago I was able to point my binoculars at the bright smudge and make out the two distinct planets: not quite kissing, but almost – just a sliver of night between them.

And then it was Christmas. Really, the only thing that reminded me it was Christmastime were the ornamental plastic Santas and snowmen stuck into the grills of passing semi-trucks. I was missing the usual sights and smells of pine trees and poinsettias and snow pooling on conifer boughs, so I looked for signs of holiday spirit in the desert landscape. The plants here adorn themselves. The creosote bushes are decorated with round fluffy seedlings and the juniper trees have their pale blue berries as baubles. The yucca and agave and sotol send up woody stalks that are topped with bell-shaped and hanging flowers, which remind me of the stars and angels atop Christmas trees. That cheered me up a bit, but really I took the most heart in knowing that lots of people were having lonely holidays due to Covid, so at least I wasn’t alone in being alone. I spent Christmas in Roswell, known for its kitschy souvenir shops and alien-themed everything: a McDonald’s shaped like a flying saucer, a gigantic alien statue outside the Arby’s, alien eye stickers on the streetlights, t-shirts that read “It’s probing time.” The town was deserted, everyone at home gathering for their virus-infested festivities, so it was just me and various homeless people pacing the sidewalks. All in all it was kind of depressing, but certainly memorable.

I then had the pleasure of visiting three more National Parks: Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, and Big Bend. The Caverns are part of the 250 million year old Permian Reef, formed back when Pangaea was a thing, so when I went hiking all the exposed limestone was studded with the bodies of ancient sea-creatures. Yes, I broke federal law and picked up a few rocks. Please don’t tell. I won’t waste too much space trying to describe the experience of walking through the cavern’s hanging gardens of stalactites and fairy forests of stalagmites, because it’s really something you’ve got to see, but the closest comparison would be walking through a dimly lit cathedral populated with marble statuary – the cave had the spooky, holy vibe of an old church. The Guadalupe Mountains are conveniently located right down the road, so on New Year’s Day I conquered the highest point in Texas, climbing 900 metres from the Chihuahuan desert to a forest of ponderosa and pinyon pines. Lastly, I explored Big Bend. I went skinny-dipping in the Rio Grande, hiked through the snow and mud in the Chisos Mountains, and walked beneath the 150-foot walls of the Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande runs green and swift and you can wade across to Mexico.

Watching the sun set in Big Bend

Big Bend is located in the middle of nowhere, requiring a long drive through the high desert of West Texas. Other than a pitstop in the hip, arty town of Marfa (where Black Sabbath t-shirts I could find at Goodwill for $3 sell for $200 in fancy vintage stores alongside CBD nail polish and daily affirmation flashcards and crystal-embedded “intention candles”), it’s a wasteland. The people who dwell outside Big Bend in the “ghost town” of Terlingua are real desert rats. They live in Airstream trailers and adobe houses and must roast all summer long. At the general store, a long-haired cowboy gets out of his rusted-out pick-up truck with a half-drunk bottle of Pacifica in his hand, his skin leathery from the desert sun. At the town cemetery, the graves are littered with offerings of empty beer bottles to honour the hard-partying “Good Men Done Gone,” as one epitaph put it. The operators of a campground I stayed at had photos on their office wall of their kids wielding Confederate flags. It’s a different world down here, a lawlessness that people seem to take pride in.

Desert rat in Terlingua

Now I’m just rambling around West Texas. I recently watched No Country for Old Men, which is set in West Texas and based on the goth/cowboy Cormac McCarthy novel. I think the film’s casual violence and parade of cut-rate motels reflects the reality of the land pretty well. West Texas is where the country really shows its scale. There are dots with names on the map, but when you pass through it’s just a cluster of dilapidated buildings centred around a highway junction, one guy sitting on his decaying front porch watching you drive past. There are motels with their windows boarded up, motels advertising colour TV, motels where people peep out from behind the curtains as if they’re afraid of daylight. The sense of neglect is visible along the roadside, where cows have been left to rot in the ditch, their exposed ribs shining white in the sun. A crow picks at a corpse and alights to a tree as I drive past, a huge chunk of flesh in its beak. You can drive two hours without hitting a gas station and one hour without a radio station. Leaving Big Bend, I listened to the only station on the dial: distant, raspy Mexican love songs that felt like the soundtrack of a Gothic Western horror movie. An hour later I was excited to get a Christian station, which explained salvation in terms only a property-minded Texan could appreciate: God’s grace is the down payment on a home – all you have to do is keep making the monthly payments.

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