The Hundredth Meridianrnby Chilton Williarnson, Jr.rnSouth by SoutheastrnEast, east-southeast, southeast: ruggedrnmountains covered by lichenous forestsrnbreaking from the red desert floor, sky islandsrnof the American Southwest. SanrnCarlos Lake ahead of the wing, and beyondrnit the dark mass of the PinalenornMountains; southwest, the distant hornrnof Baboquivari snagging the summerrnhaze. The Chiricahua Mountainsrncrowded the Arizona line and then thernplane was into western New Mexico,rnskirting fields of cumulus clouds abovernthe peaks of the Gila, flying throughrnclear open skies over red deserts. ThernBurro and Cedar Mountains, the FloridarnMountains; Interstate 10 making thernbend east of Lordsburg toward Deming.rnThen—the wing coming up for thernnortheast turn south of the OrganrnMountains—the green corridor of thernRio Grande like a Martian canal acrossrnthe wilderness: 500 years of civilizationrnhugging the brown river with towns,rnhouses, pecan orchards, and cottonfields,rnsiphoning its life-force throughrnthe thirsty acequias. Beyond the river, finally,rnthe bergs and ranges of mysteriousrnMexico, indistinct in the haze. Thernplane bumped across the thermals risingrnabove the Franklin Mountains, bankedrnsouth, and dropped to the runway extendingrninto red sand and mesquite. In arnwarm cantina at the El Paso InternationalrnAirport, among booted men in tallrnblack hats, dark-skinned girls, and thernflutter of the Spanish tongue, I drank arncold beer to celebrate my arrival in thernSouthwest.rnWe turn almost imperceptibly fromrnone thing to the next, becoming in thernprocess nearly something else ourselves.rnWriters wear things out and use themrnup. Don Juans by temperament they arerntypically rough on women, from whomrnthey demand too much while giving toornlittle in return. Yet the Don Juanism ofrnthe writer is even more evident in his lustrnfor places and for experience than it is inrnhis relationship with the opposite sex.rnThe modernist dictum “Make it new” isrnincomplete, applying to the work alonernrather than to the life that produces thernwork. A Ph.D. candidate looking to reducernthe matter to boring statistics orrntorrid case studies would likely discoverrnauthors to be far more promiscuousrnlovers of experience than they are ofrnwomen. Ten years after my arrival in thernAmerican Northwest my imaginative eyernwas already roving in the direction of thernSouthwest—an infidelity of the heartrnshortly betrayed by such subtle signs asrngas receipts from filling stations in lostrndesert towns across Arizona, New Mexico,rnand southern Utah; manuscripts-inprogressrnwith exotic settings; and ironand-rnglass furniture imported fromrnMexico pushing New England antiquesrnat home. For the next eight years I spentrnmore and more time in the Southwest,rnwhile deepening and consolidating a familiarityrnwith the North. Same old wifernevery night, Ed Abbey complained. Itrnisn’t that you don’t love her still, just thatrna man needs excitement, freshness, color,rnromance—something new. Fortunately,rnit is permissible to deal with a localerndifferently than one is required torntreat a woman.rnAs the world is well acquainted withrnmen (and women) wishing to keep arnhold on their old wives (or husbands)rnwhile acquiring new wives and lovers, sornthere are people determined to keep thernpast alive by annealing it to the present;rnto live the past in the present, while seekingrnto attach the future by the simple actrnof anticipating it. Of these people anrnoverwhelming proportion are probablyrnartists of some sort, for the very good reasonrnthat attempting to unite past, present,rnand future is the central aim of intellectualrnand spiritual existence, even ifrnthat goal is finally unrealizable in thisrnlife. Writers refuse to let go of anything:rnthey want to pile their entire lives up insiderntheir heads, never forgetting, neverrnsaying goodbye to whatever has happenedrnto them in thought, action, or experience.rnIn this they resemble the compulsivernhouseholder who carries junkrnupstairs in preference to throwing itrnaway, except that writers don’t want allrnthat precious stuff in the attic, they wantrnit laid out in the living room and on thernfront porch—a character flaw that makesrnthem difficult people to live with emotionally.rnUnfortunately it is also an elementrnessential to the writerly personality,rnlike alcoholism or satyriasis, lackingrnwhich writers are hardly writers at all.rnThe trait is shared even by perfecdy sanernand well-adjusted people who understand,rnbetter than authors, how to makernit work for them at the level of normalrnexistence. “It’s not that I don’t lovernWyoming,” Sissy Richardson explainedrnas we drank a pitcher of beer together inrna cantina in Mesilla, looking across therndark room to the white glare beyond thernscreened door. “Living in New Mexicornhas showed me Wyoming the way Irnnever knew Wyoming was before. Ofrncourse I love Wyoming. I’ll always lovernWyoming.” And Sissy is too intelligent arngirl to be a writer.rnIn the Palacio Bar we drank red beerrnwhile a band including a bass viol, an accordion,rnand a guitar played the traditionalrnMexican songs. The musiciansrnwere old Mesilleros, like the patronsrnalong the bar drinking beer and rum andrnrequesting songs which they paid for afterward.rnGray-haired men with dark,rndeeply creased faces, they sat facing thernmusicians with their drinks behindrnthem, listening soberly and attentively,rnbreaking into smiles and applause at thernend of each song. The room was coolrnand pleasant, the wooden floor sweptrnclean, the evening light bent by the loweredrnblinds reflecting from the long mirrorrnback of the two rows of bottles. Admiringrnthe tenor voice of the guitarist,rnwatching the cellist stoop to pluck a lowrnnote, feeling the melancholy music lopingrnout of Old Mexico, I experienced thernexhilaration I remember from nearly 20rnyears ago, sitting in the roughneck bars ofrnWyoming.rn”What made you decide to move tornNew Mexico?” 1 asked Sissy.rn”It was the place I always wanted tornSEPTEMBER 1997/49rnrnrn