East, east-southeast, southeast: rugged mountains covered by lichenous forests breaking from the red desert floor, sky islands of the American Southwest. San Carlos Lake ahead of the wing, and beyond it the dark mass of the Pinaleno Mountains; southwest, the distant horn of Baboquivari snagging the summer haze. The Chiricahua Mountains crowded the Arizona line and then the plane was into western New Mexico, skirting fields of cumulus clouds above the peaks of the Gila, flying through clear open skies over red deserts. The Burro and Cedar Mountains, the Florida Mountains; Interstate 10 making the bend east of Lordsburg toward Deming. Then—the wing coming up for the northeast turn south of the Organ Mountains—the green corridor of the Rio Grande like a Martian canal across the wilderness: 500 years of civilization hugging the brown river with towns, houses, pecan orchards, and cottonfields, siphoning its life-force through the thirsty acequias. Beyond the river, finally, the bergs and ranges of mysterious Mexico, indistinct in the haze. The plane bumped across the thermals rising above the Franklin Mountains, banked south, and dropped to the runway extending into red sand and mesquite. In a warm cantina at the El Paso International Airport, among booted men in tall black hats, dark-skinned girls, and the flutter of the Spanish tongue, I drank a cold beer to celebrate my arrival in the Southwest.
We turn almost imperceptibly from one thing to the next, becoming in the process nearly something else ourselves. Writers wear things out and use them up. Don Juans by temperament they are typically rough on women, from whom they demand too much while giving too little in return. Yet the Don Juanism of the writer is even more evident in his lust for places and for experience than it is in his relationship with the opposite sex. The modernist dictum “Make it new” is incomplete, applying to the work alone rather than to the life that produces the work. A Ph.D. candidate looking to reduce the matter to boring statistics or torrid case studies would likely discover authors to be far more promiscuous lovers of experience than they are of women. Ten years after my arrival in the American Northwest my imaginative eye was already roving in the direction of the Southwest—an infidelity of the heart shortly betrayed by such subtle signs as gas receipts from filling stations in lost desert towns across Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Utah; manuscripts-in-progress with exotic settings; and iron-and-glass furniture imported from Mexico pushing New England antiques at home. For the next eight years I spent more and more time in the Southwest, while deepening and consolidating a familiarity with the North. Same old wife every night, Ed Abbey complained. It isn’t that you don’t love her still, just that a man needs excitement, freshness, color, romance—something new. Fortunately, it is permissible to deal with a locale differently than one is required to treat a woman.
As the world is well acquainted with men (and women) wishing to keep a hold on their old wives (or husbands) while acquiring new wives and lovers, so there are people determined to keep the past alive by annealing it to the present; to live the past in the present, while seeking to attach the future by the simple act of anticipating it. Of these people an overwhelming proportion are probably artists of some sort, for the very good reason that attempting to unite past, present, and future is the central aim of intellectual and spiritual existence, even if that goal is finally unrealizable in this life. Writers refuse to let go of anything: they want to pile their entire lives up inside their heads, never forgetting, never saying goodbye to whatever has happened to them in thought, action, or experience. In this they resemble the compulsive householder who carries junk upstairs in preference to throwing it away, except that writers don’t want all that precious stuff in the attic, they want it laid out in the living room and on the front porch—a character flaw that makes them difficult people to live with emotionally. Unfortunately it is also an element essential to the writerly personality, like alcoholism or satyriasis, lacking which writers are hardly writers at all. The trait is shared even by perfectly sane and well-adjusted people who understand, better than authors, how to make it work for them at the level of normal existence. “It’s not that I don’t love Wyoming,” Sissy Richardson explained as we drank a pitcher of beer together in a cantina in Mesilla, looking across the dark room to the white glare beyond the screened door. “Living in New Mexico has showed me Wyoming the way I never knew Wyoming was before. Of course I love Wyoming. I’ll always love Wyoming.” And Sissy is too intelligent a girl to be a writer.
In the Palacio Bar we drank red beer while a band including a bass viol, an accordion, and a guitar played the traditional Mexican songs. The musicians were old Mesilleros, like the patrons along the bar drinking beer and rum and requesting songs which they paid for afterward. Gray-haired men with dark, deeply creased faces, they sat facing the musicians with their drinks behind them, listening soberly and attentively, breaking into smiles and applause at the end of each song. The room was cool and pleasant, the wooden floor swept clean, the evening light bent by the lowered blinds reflecting from the long mirror back of the two rows of bottles. Admiring the tenor voice of the guitarist, watching the cellist stoop to pluck a low note, feeling the melancholy music loping out of Old Mexico, I experienced the exhilaration I remember from nearly 20 years ago, sitting in the roughneck bars of Wyoming.
“What made you decide to move to New Mexico?” I asked Sissy.
“It was the place I always wanted to see.”
“What are you going to do when you’re finished here?”
“That’s a good question. How long do you plan on staying?”
“I don’t know. As long as there’s something to see.”
Rita Madrid joined us to drink red beer and listen to the Mexican band. While it was playing she recalled for me a story I had heard on a visit to Mesilla some years before, about the woman who drowned her children in the Rio Grande and still haunts the scene of the killings. The locality of the town, Rita believes, is extremely active supernaturally. Some years ago a relative was putting her infant child down when she heard a knock at the door. The caller was an old woman dressed in black, holding a baby in her arms. Without speaking a word the woman indicated that she desired permission to enter the house; the hostess, stepping aside, was surprised to see that the child she carried was closely wrapped in a blanket identical to the one in which her own child was sleeping. The old woman accepted the seat offered her but she refused to explain what she had come for, and after several minutes of silence the mother returned to the bedroom to look in on the baby, which lay dead in its crib. Rushing in panic to the front of the house she found the room empty, and the old woman nowhere in sight on the lonely road. “Things happen all the time around here,” Rita said. She added, “No one wants to talk about them anymore.”
I found a house to my liking on the East Mesa, five miles from downtown at the edge of the creosote-bush desert with a view of the Organ Mountains rising against the eastern sky: faux adobe, on a nice-sized lot surrounded by a rock-and-cement wall topped by an iron fence, with flagstone patios front and back, shaded by pine and fruit trees and, behind the house, windrows of apricot trees filled with grackles screaming as they fought each other for the unripe fruit. A small fireplace allowed for fragrant mesquite-wood fires on cold desert nights in winter. Ten miles away at Dona Ana in the valley of the Rio Grande north of Las Cruces I made arrangements to put two horses on several acres of lush pasture watered by the acequias, with corrals, pecan trees for shade, and a stables to lodge them during the flood irrigation. Here in south-central New Mexico the price of hay is three times that in Wyoming, but with good pasture available six or seven months of the year consumption should be one-half to a third of average up north. If not, I will be exploring the wilderness of the Gila later in the summer by burro, or maybe mountain bike. For my horses, who have lived their lives on the sagebrush steppes of Wyoming, Doña Ana is going to seem like the Garden of Eden, even the Muslim Paradise. For myself, I have to look forward to the Gila, the Black Range, the Peloncillo and Chiricahua mountains, Mexico, season tickets to Señor Hurtado’s bull ring in Juarez, Jim Rauen in Belen, Jim Catron in La Joya, Steve Bodio in Magdalena, Ernie Bulow in Gallup, and acquaintances in Taos, Albuquerque, and El Paso. After three days in Las Cruces there is nothing to do but hang around in the cantinas for a fourth day, out of the hundred-three degree heat, and fly back to Wyoming to pack up.
Among the many inconveniences of holding on to the past is the necessity of carrying the physical residue on your back like a tortoise: Eighteen years of living to transport by small convoy across 975 miles of mountain and desert country at the peak of the summertime heat. Our pioneer ancestors of the backcountry and the Old Southwest a century and a half ago had better sense. Restless, footloose, avid for change as any author, they were regularly on the move, hardly pausing to let the grass grow under their feet and between the stumps on the land they had finished clearing but which bored them now; eager to follow the westward caravans that passed their doorsteps in rapidly increasing numbers. Life was simpler in those days, when relatively few people had possessions in which to haul their possessions around with them wherever and whenever they chose. Once the decision had been made to move on there was nothing left for them but to pull the door to, whistle up the dogs, and go.