The crickets which stopped singing at Thanksgiving have come inside at last, along with the spiders and an occasional skink. The leaves dropped from the pecan trees around the beginning of December, and crews are at work in the orchards beside the Rio Grande gathering the nuts. The bermuda grass is brown in the backyard, and my heating bill soared to 54 dollars this month. The New Mexicans react to 45 degree highs by wrapping up protectively like Arctic explorers or going nearly naked in defiance of the cold, while over at the country club the Anglo immigrants from El Norte congratulate themselves on having discovered the perfect climate. It must be winter in New Mexico after all. You could have fooled me.

The rains that inundated the lower Rio Grande Valley turned to snow over eastern New Mexico. Immobilized amid eight-foot drifts the sheep and cattle slowly starved while the ranchers, snowbound in their houses, were unable to reach them. National Guard troops organized a rescue operation that for nearly two weeks airlifted five-ton hay bales in G-130 transport planes and dropped them from a height of 300 feet to burst on impact, scattering hay behind the fleeing animals.

I threw the cross-country skis in the bed of the pickup truck and drove east one morning, across the Tularosa cactus flats to Alamogordo and from Alamogordo up to the town of Cloudcroft in the Sacramento Mountains in search of what could fairly be described in accordance with the truth-in-advertising laws as winter. In Cloudcroft the inner-tube rental outfits were doing a land-office business, and ice-skaters stood in line to get on a flooded depression in the ground slightly smaller than an Olympic-sized-pool. A two-foot-accumulation of snow with the consistency of wet plaster covered the northern aspects of the mountains, but the east- and south-facing slopes were nearly bare. The last best hope for winter lay farther east in the region lately declared a disaster area by President Clinton. It seemed like a long way to drive to go skiing, but the Texans have been doing it since they quit being Texans and began looking for mountains to conquer.

Mañana as a way of life works no better for Anglos like me than it does for anybody else. Here in the Southwest a prudent man seizes on a cold day as unthinkingly as, in the Northwest, he takes advantage of a hot one. The long eastern slope of the Sacramentos was lovely, but most of the snow had melted out long ago. I kept driving east anyway, following the Rio Peñasco down from the piney forests into the piñon and juniper hills where the upward sweep of the High Plains breaks at last like a great wave crashing. The river ran full and the meadows beside it were flushed with the green of early spring, in spite of the dim winter light and the low-traveling sun. Wild turkeys strutted in the fields, and where the valley widened below Mayhill strangely familiar trees grew in rows above the floodplain: apple orchards set out in the southern extremity of the Rocky Mountains, a shocking juxtaposition of Johnny Appleseed with Billy the Kid. At the summit of a prairie swale a few miles beyond Elk, New Mexico, I sat overlooking the vast yellow plain stretching in undulating folds of mud to the Texas border. Conceding defeat at last I drove into the mountains again and returned to Cloudcroft by an alternate route. The wet snowdrifts reappeared as the elevation increased, and with the approach of evening the deer began to cross, sleek and healthy-looking from the easy winter. At the lodge at Cloudcroft, high above the town amid tall pines and piles of the slumping snow, I had a scotch-and-soda on the enclosed porch overlooking the Tularosa desert 5,000 feet below. A spreading luminescence on the desert floor inspired the brief, unguarded hope every desert mirage raises. The White Sands, of course. There’s always early retirement in Havre, Montana, to look forward to.

No one, I discovered the next morning, had raked the leaves in my absence. Since southern New Mexico, so far as I had been able to tell, is lacking a fall as well as a winter, I hadn’t bothered raking leaves. At home in Wyoming I was always too busy hunting to rake, and by the time hunting season ended whatever leaves had fallen during the previous months were covered by two or three feet of snow. In Las Cruces, it seemed, I couldn’t rely on snow to solve the leaf problem, so I looked to the wind instead. With any luck at all the spring winds, if not the winter ones, would blow all the leaves, and the branches and twigs with them, into the Organ Mountains together with the trash lying along Highway 70. The sensible thing was to forget about raking leaves and take a horse into the Doña Ana Mountains instead, while they were still in a comfortable deep freeze and before the arrival of spring and the related dangers of sunstroke, skin cancer, and smotheration.

In Doña Ana the turned chili and cotton fields warmed under the mild midwinter sun. Most of the horses at Mike Cisneros’s stables were gone from their pens for roping practice, and Mike was loading his own tall bay roper for the ride over to the arena. Overfed and underexcercised, hot from too much protein, the gelding evaded me briefly, ducking and running the fence, before I could get the halter on him. His coat and the mare’s, which had started to lengthen late in September, had grown out half way before unseasonable weather aborted the process. Now, instead of resembling yaks, they looked merely motley, the tufts of chin hair giving them a goatish appearance. I loaded the horse into the trailer and drove north of Doña Ana, under Interstate 25, and up an arroyo coming down from the mountains. When the trail gave out at last we left the rig in the wash and continued horseback into the hills.

Brown and tent-like, grouped in a vaguely circular formation, the Doña Ana Mountains arose from the desert like an Indian camp. The ground was stony underfoot, and I let the barefoot horse find his own way, so long as it was uphill, over the steep hillocks rising by degrees to the pass. We climbed from the creosote desert above the river through climatic zones signaled by varying types of cacti, beneath crags and parapets of pink conglomerate rock. I drew the revolver I wore under my jacket and spun the cylinder to check the loads. “If you smell mountain lion, scream,” I told the horse.

It was very still going into the mountains. The horse stepped almost silently after we left the rocky trail and struck out across country over sand and gravel, picking his way among the prickly pear, barrel cactus, agave, yucca, and the leafless mesquite. Nothing moved on the hills, or down in the gravelly washes among the wami and scrub oak. According to Mike Cisneros there were deer in the Doña Anas once, but they were poached out years ago. The lions too are gone, departed east to the San Andres or across the river into the wilder and rougher Robleros. If a gun is of any use at all in here it will be in self-defense against feral members of my own species. The faint lemon-colored sun, the pale sky behind a tarnish of high ice crystals, the barren, pinkish-brown mountains, bladed and sharp, eroding fast but not nearly so rapidly as the surrounding human civilization: there was beauty here of a cold twilight kind, the starkness of nature in retreat from an enemy which for reasons of inconvenience, inutility, and diffidence had chosen not to pursue. The beauty, that is, of much of the beleaguered Southwest today. The city of Las Cruces, though clearly visible at a distance of only a few miles behind, was an absent presence on the scene as the mountains themselves, rising ahead, were a present absence, making us unwilling witnesses to an uncertain future.

“What do you think?” I asked the horse.

I don’t think.

“We’ve been here six months now. That’s already half a year.”

A year is an arbitrary measurement of time.

“It is when it doesn’t have a winter.”

Approaching the pass I let him have his head and we ascended the final rise of ground at a lope.

“Moving to New Mexico was an experiment, you know.”

For us it was three days in a hot horse trailer.

“You like it down here?”

Why not? The climate’s perfect.

“But you’re a native Montanan.”

And one of these days I’ll be a New Mexican senior citizen. The West is the West, after all.

From the pass we stood looking away between the peaks to the brown runneled wall of the San Andres Mountains.

“There’s no snow east of here, either. I went looking yesterday. All the way to Elk, New Mexico.”

I’ve had snow enough to last me a lifetime.

“That’s only 30 years for a horse.”

The trouble with human beings is, for them the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

“You’re quite a philosopher. I wasn’t aware of the fact until now. Maybe I ought to make you a consul—you know, President.”

I’d be a big improvement over the horse’s ass you folks have in there now.

I dismounted and went around him, lifting each hoof in turn to remove the long red cactus thorns from the fetiocks.

“So you think you could be happy in New Mexico?” I asked when I had got up in the saddle again.

A person is able to be happy anywhere. Or ought to be.

“You think this could ever really be our country?”

Any country can be yours if you make it that way.

“That’s easy for you to say. You don’t need to learn Spanish.”

Get the cuss words down first. We’re learning already from Cisneros.

“Okay,” I said, “you win. For now, anyway.”

The sun dropped behind the mountains, and the basin filled with the blue afternoon shadow. Birds twittered from the junipers and tree yuccas growing high on the cliffs, and isolated patches of old snow showed white in the shaded places. I sat the horse for a while, enjoying the bird calls and the windless solitude. Then I turned his head and we started downhill from the pass toward the distant river. As evening fell the secret life of the desert began to emerge from its hiding places. We saw jackrabbits and a covey of quail going for water to a spring rising amid house-sized boulders covered with a green lichen. Sighting us the birds fled bobbing with spread wings into the brush and broken rock surrounding the boulders. The western sky separated into bars of orange, turquoise, and green, and the lights of the city rippled in waves across the haze of gasoline fumes and the smoke of brush fires burning on the far side of the Rio Grande. We arrived at the truck as darkness closed in and the moon—the hot platinum moon of the desert Southwest—rose behind the Organ Mountains.

“Full moon tonight,” I said. “So that’s how it is I’ve been having a conversation with a horse.”

I loaded him and drove back to the stables where Mike Cisneros was already feeding. The roping horses were in their pens, ravenous from their workout and snorting. I turned the gelding in with the mare, and Mike came over and threw them a couple offtakes of hay and a can of alfalfa pellets. The horse was sweated under the saddle, but his half-grown-out coat remained dry over the shoulders and along the flanks.

“You can’t take that horse back to Wyoming now,” Mike said. “He’d freeze to death.”

“So he’s been telling me.”

“It’s beautiful here in the wintertime,” Mike went on. ‘Tou can rope every day, ride into the mountains and across the river—do anything you like.”

“I know,” I agreed with him. “It’s the perfect climate.”