Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Who's Gonna Know Your Grass?
Wake before the light and drive off into the dark. Even in the pre-dawn, I can just make out the smoke-filled valley behind Atalaya, the site of recent controlled burns. The mountain is backlit slightly, as if there is a city beyond the ridgeline. Below the high mesas of Glorietta, the sky turning gold to the east. Not far now to Las Vegas, the true gateway to the grasslands. To the right, the horizon flattens out. To the left, my shadow begins to appear, then lengthens. The sun on my face is a welcome relief, for the heater in my truck isn't working and does nothing against the chill of the morning. The higher peaks of Wheeler are already snow covered. Though lower in height, Hermit Peak stands as true sentinel. Near the cottonwood oases near Watrous, I pass a convoy of trucks carrying the massive fang-like blades of wind turbines. This march of progress passes a empty homestead just off the road. It looks recently abandoned, the cattle pens, water trough, and wind mill still intact. In the distance, the tell-tale shape of the mesas gives the town of Wagon Mound its name. I wonder what the Comanche once called it. The town is hazy, as the ground is heated by a sun now directly in my eyes. Not long after, I'm through the Canadian River valley, and arrive at the true grasslands.
I slow as I pass through Roy. Bob Willis once cut hair here before he became famous for other things. I take a second lap through town until a couple of songs of his play out on my speakers. I have a couple choices of roads from here, and I take the one that looks most remote. It is a zig-zag route to the northeast, the paved surface narrowing and bisecting fenced-in land of such a scale that I can see no homes or structures but for the town of Yates, empty and rotting on the prairie. As I drive on, hundreds of locusts jump into the air, many of them into the path of my truck. I think of fate, and the fact that my choice of roads has contributed to this genocide. I slow some, but it doesn't help. Finally, I come to a complete stop in order to pee. Standing beside the road, I take in the emptiness, and how small I've become amidst it.
Late morning, and I arrive in Clayton. The town has long broad streets, and its heart is still in the 50s, with an old hardware store, a movie theater, and a hotel of an even older vintage. I walk around a little, popping into a thrift shop whose door plays "Dixie" as it opens. The books are all on sale for a dollar or two, most of them religious texts. In front of the town bank a flag flutters bearing the likeness of Black Jack Ketchum, notorious train robber who died on the gallows here. He may have once eaten in the saloon of the hotel, whose menu and selection of microbrews on tap is pretty progressive for such a remote town. The bartendress brings my filet, the meat tender from years of walking the prairie not far away. As I eat, I overhear the bartendress telling one of the staff about how just last night she broke the heart of a regular customer, one who wanted to keep her and build her a house. Such are the trials of being an attractive single woman in a lonely country town. As is dealing with the flirtations of a couple of cowboys who come to sit at the table next to mine. As she deftly fends off their attention, I notice the broadening of her accent. Much as mine does when I later order a coffee, in the attempt to ward off sleepiness brought on by the beer.
After lunch, I drive out to the lake to see the dinosaur prints. At least eight different animals passed across the mud flats at the lake's east end. A sign tells me that one of them had been a baby, pursued by two larger carnivores. Considering I've got a newborn at home, I find myself worrying about the little guy. As I walk around the flats, a lizard runs across, then scurries into a nearby hole. I wonder if it feels an sort of connection with this place. I stop, and look at the sky. The wind is picking up dramatically, but there is not yet a hint of the storm that is due to come in, not a cloud up there.
Keeping up the dinosaur theme, I fill my tank at Sinclair. Moments later, I'm forced to stop at the only stoplight in all of Union County. Ten minutes down the road, I'm in Texas. Despite having many friends from here, I have a bit of a thing about this state. Being a New Mexican, I'm all too aware of the poor behavior of my neighbors. But I'm strangely drawn to it, find myself wanting to like it. As I drive away from the only Texan town I'll see today--Texline-- I turn on a special mix I've prepared for this part of the drive. I sing along. "Deep in the Heart of." "Yellow Rose of." But my own yellow rose is back in Santa Fe. I pass many old abandoned farms with their rotting cars and trucks that shined new in the '40s. I pull into a grove of cottonwoods standing tall amidst all the grass. Thompson Grove. I sit and drink my by now cold coffee, admiring the bulletholes blasted through the trash can that has obviously been a threat to somebody. Turning my head I read a sign that warns me that rodents here may be carriers of plague. Plague! Within seconds, Thompson Grove is in my rearview mirror. In about ten minutes I cross the state line.
Oklahoma, what's the deal with your roads? I bump and shake my way north across the panhandle. The corn alongside the road is rotting on the vine, nowhere as high as an elephant's eye. The town of Boise City is a mere roundabout, with an old brick building at it's center. The signs confuse, so I pull over and become a spoke radiating from its center. As I attempt to pull up a map on my cell phone, a farmer pulls in beside me and asks if I need something. After he points me the right way, he tells me that my truck is in a dangerous spot. What I'd assumed was assistance was more a rebuke. The drive east is amidst industrial farms and small oil production facilities. The land is nearly destroyed, some the worst desertification I've ever seen. I'd heard that the recent drought rivals that of the Dust Bowl, into whose heart I am now heading. Due to that event, these National Grasslands were created, as means of encouraging a more sustainable means of prairie management. But the state of the land makes me question whether any lessons have been learned. And coupled with the current economic disaster...
I'm in Kansas, crossing the Cimarron River, dry but with tall and healthy cottonwoods, their color a gold that rivals the sunrise of the morning. I make a couple stops at Middle Spring and Point of Rocks, stops kept brief due to the wind that is now roaring. At the former, I can barely spot the wagon ruts of the Santa Fe trail, leading to this sheltering grove, this nourishing stream. From Point of Rocks, I look over the gold ribbon of cottonwoods stretching away in both directions. My vantage point is the third highest elevation in Kansas, yet a fall from here is enough to injure but not enough to kill. As I drive out on a bad road, I notice a rattler stretched out across the dirt. The wind won't be the only thing I'll need to mind at the camp tonight.
I'm fed onto yet another lone highway, one that surprises me in being paved. At the Colorado border it ceases to be. The gravel is well groomed enough that I can keep up a decent speed. But the uncertain surface brings stress into the body, one that doesn't cease until the following morning when tire once again touches tar. Dust streams behind me as I make my way, arrow straight. Finally, I find the turnoff to Picture Canyon, and drop down amidst the mesatops. I'm disappointed to find an RV here, then I'm heartbroken to find the campsite closed. I talk with two workmen who are paving a walkway to the toilets. I'm further annoyed at this, frustrated at this attempt to cater to the pampered type of tourist who'd probably never come to this remote spot in the first place. I am told I can camp beside the now barred gate, but the winds are too strong to camp in the open. A better choice would be below these cliffs which offer the ultimate windbreak. Luckily, there's another camping area is not too far away. The day is late so I hurry over the trail out to the pictographs. In the fading light, I can only make out one. It is of a recent vintage, less the stick figures of the Ancient Puebloans, but fuller and in multiple colors. This was probably done by a latter day tribe, Comanche maybe. Due to the light, I'm unable to find more, so I head back to the truck and race the sun to Carrizo Creek...
On the turntable: Stone Temple Pilots, "Core"
On the nighttable: Raymond Otis, "Little Valley"