On Mule Teams and Dutch Oven Biscuits

Mule teams and Dutch oven biscuits, doubletrees and a renegade Apache called the Apache Kid. These are some of the images that fire family history, family myth.

Betty and I spent some time in Arizona and New Mexico this year and as we wandered around between the deserts and the mountains, my mind journeyed to some of my family’s history in that part of the USA: My great-grandfather Riggs herding cattle into the Mogollon country in the 1870s, the Plumbs settling in the eastern part of the state, the decades down around Tombstone and then homesteading in the Sonoran Desert south of the Salt River.

I heard a lot of stories about these folks when I was young, these pioneers who pushed south out of Utah into a wild and desolate land.

One of the tales I heard was about an encounter my grandfather, William Lafayette Plumb, had with the Apache Kid. It came to mind as Betty and I were headed south from San Simon, Arizona, on Interstate 10, driving towards Portal Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. I’d forgotten the story, but as we looked at the desert flats trapped between the Chiricahuas on our right and the Peloncillo Mountains on our left, the story came back to me.

The Apache Kid, or Haskay-bay-nay-ntayl as he was named in Apache, was a semi-mythical figure who lived in the border country of Arizona and New Mexico in the US, and Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico. The Kid was pretty much an orphaned child and was raised around Army posts in Arizona, and when he became old enough, the chief of Army scouts, Al Sieber, chose him for a scout.

In 1887 The Kid was involved in a murder of another Apache scout, was tried and convicted–more than once for the same murder–before finally being sent to the Arizona State Prison in Yuma in 1889. On the way, The Kid escaped and from that point on, became a phantom of sorts, accused of rape and rustling and theft and murder all the way into the 1930s.

My grandfather was a freighter around the turn of the 20th Century. He hauled freight in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico as well as northern Mexico.

Lafe Plumb freighting logs

The encounter with The Kid as told to me was that Lafe, as they called my grandfather, and two other freighters were camped out in the high desert south of San Simon. Let me set the scene.

The horses were hobbled in a meadow. Even though it’s a desert now, that country back then–in the 1890s–was lush. The freight wagons, or trucks as they were also known, were drawn up in a laager just in case; even though the Apaches had been on the reservation for ten-plus years, old fears refused to die gracefully. The sun was just cutting in over the Peloncillos and the meadowlarks were singing their liquid-gold tunes. A slight breeze bent the heads of the gramma grass and a mantle of snow shrouded the Chiricahuas.

Dutch ovens smoked on blue-red mesquite coals, a speckled coffee pot, too. Tin plates and cups and other gear spread in the bed of one of the wagons. Side meat sizzled in a Dutch oven and potatoes fried in a cast iron skillet. The scent of pinto beans and fresh tortillas lingered over the fire.

The freighters wore high-topped boots and colorful Mexican serapes, floppy felt hats. Big knives hung off their belts and long-barreled 44s in holsters. Winchester rifles leaned up against the spokes of wagon wheels.

No one heard The Kid arrive…just suddenly there, sitting horseback, sombrero brim pulled down over his forehead, right hand on the grip of one of his pistols.

I imagine alarm and awkwardness. Hemming and hawing. He was an Indian and they were white men.

But I also imagine these freighters having a notion of hospitality, and they would have known that if he was going to kill them, he probably would have already done so, and so they invited him to sit a spell and share their victuals.

They ate their beans and tortillas and side meat and spuds, the freighters talking about the route south, their families. The Kid sat on his haunches and packed all his grub inside tortillas and never said a word. That’s what my grandmother kept saying to me when she first told me this story. “He never said a word.”

When he finished eating, he set his utensils down on the end of one of the wagons, walked over to his horse, jumped into the saddle, turned to ride off, but then stopped. He looked at the freighters and tipped his hat and said, “You men are lucky. You just ate breakfast with the Apache Kid and will live to tell your children.” That’s what she kept saying, my grandmother, “You men are lucky. You just ate breakfast with the Apache Kid and will live to tell your children.”

One of the important aspects of family history is how it creates a rich tapestry that ties us to the past. Some folks reckon that what happened in the past doesn’t matter since it can’t be changed. Yet I can’t help but wonder if where we come from isn’t part of who we are.

Ken Rodgers

I once heard a radio interview with the African American poet Rita Dove. She talked about family and the strengths that family history provides to the living. The past provides context, it presents a panoply of characters to admire, or not admire.

Rita Dove’s not-too-distant ancestors were slaves. Yet family was so important to her that since she couldn’t know who her ancestors were, she made them up. It was important for her to create a lineage, to visualize, to name them, to give herself a framework to understand who and what she had become.

Even though I can name a lot of my ancestors, family history is important to me for the same reasons it is important to Rita Dove. It’s important to me to know about Lafe Plumb’s encounter with the Apache Kid.

I don’t necessarily have to make up a family history. I have stories related to me over the years by my elders. I also have family rumors and myth–some true, some false–that I can draw upon so that the images I see in my mind are the kind I can hear and see and smell, the kind I can rub my hand over and when I look at my fingers, find a festered splinter that came out of one of Lafe’s freight wagons.

Notes on Terlingua and Memory

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.
William Faulkner

Memory may be the only thing of value that we carry out of this world when we exit. Memory revealed its strength to me the last few weeks as Betty and I peregrinated around the southwest. After screening our documentary film BRAVO! in my old home town of Casa Grande, we took a drive up around the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson towards San Manuel on our way to Benson, Arizona.

A range of mountains to our north came into view and even though it had been over thirty years since I had last seen those mountains, my memories of journeys into and along that range sprang right into the forefront of my attention. Galiuros…that was the name of the mountains, the Galiuros.

Stand of Saguaro on the Reddington-Cascabel Road, Arizona. © Ken Rodgers 2014

I remembered camping trips in the fifties when we hiked up the rough run of Aravaipa Canyon, and hunting trips into the deep cut flanks of the Santa Catalina foothills in the seventies and eighties. These memories were gratifying on some level that I am not sure I understand. Was it memory itself that made me satisfied, or was it the memories of those moments?

Those thoughts simmered inside me as we drove off the main highway between Tucson and Superior and took on the corduroy washboard they call the San Pedro-Reddington-Cascabel Road around the back side of the Santa Catalinas and the Rincon Mountains. This road is carved by arroyos exposing the geology of the country, the aggregate and white rock that glares when the sun beats on it. What surprised me, besides the pilgrims who had moved into the country over the thirty years since my last visit, were the forests of saguaro, the forests of cholla and ocotillo and prickly pear. The country in southern Arizona has become so developed that the large groupings of desert flora have been diminished to one or two examples of each species so that the developers can show their customers they are maintaining the integrity of the land as it was before the rush of folks from back east or California.

But what I was seeing out on that washboard road was straight out of my recollection of what the Sonoran Desert around Tucson used to be, before Del Webb and Pulte and all the other big-name builders showed up to mow down what got in the way of golf courses and club houses and streets and homes.

Chiricahua National Monument, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona. ©Ken Rodgers 2014

We arrived in Benson and spent a day and a half chasing birds around the San Pedro Riparian Wildlife Conservation Area outside Sierra Vista and in Portal Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains on the New Mexico/Arizona border. My previous excursions in the region had only been pass-throughs, but memories of them floated up as we watched redtail hawks, white-breasted nuthatches, pyrrhuloxias and loggerhead shrikes. The southeast area of Arizona was home to some of my ancestors and even though I have little evidence of what happened to them there, the knowledge that their graves are in the old St. David cemetery and neighboring locations conjured up images of draft horses and Apache raids, and I wondered if those were manufactured in my own mind or remnants of a racial memory.

We journeyed on to Fort Davis, Texas, and two days of listening to cowboy poets and musicians ply their tunes and poems. Fort Davis and Alpine (where they had the cowboy poetry event) sit in wild country with cliffs and valleys and peaks that rear up like volcanoes we see in movies, like anvils and great monuments built in some kind of fantasy land where what is constructed is beyond the hand of man, created by a greater race of beings, now long gone with no signature but the rugged country that sings to our remembrance.

Mitre Peak, Alpine, Texas. ©Ken Rodgers 2014

Then on to Big Bend and the wild jumble of Rio Grande country, the mix of Mexican and American heritage a permanent stamp on the culture. A culture still lodged in the memory of my youth.

The mountains at Big Bend look like they were shoved into mounds and blocks and pyramids and the land changes from grassy terrain to conifer heights. Bear, cougar and elk inhabit rugged topography not far from surroundings inhabited by desert denizens like diamondbacks and peccaries.

We spent a night in Terlingua, Texas, or more specifically, Terlingua Ghost Town which sits about five miles west of modern Terlingua. Terlingua Ghost Town is what remains of a once prosperous community whose citizens mostly worked in the mercury mines that were so important to the munitions industry in the first half of the twentieth century. Most of what remains of the ghost town’s glory is kept in the memories written down in books and portrayed in old photography.

Terlingua Ghost Town Cemetery. ©Ken Rodgers 2014

Upon our arrival we were delivered a big surprise. We needed to go to the Terlingua Trading Company to check into our lodgings for the night in the ghost town and instead of goblins, ghosts and zombies, we found one of the most lively places we’d been in since arriving in the southwest part of Texas. The Trading Company is located in an old building with high and wide Texan porches. Gangs of people sat along walls and the edges of the porch, playing guitars, singing, palavering, drinking beer. They were a wild array of folks, old hippies, young hippies, Marines, cowboys, turistas, and then there were the dogs, mostly pit bulls and occasionally a mongrel of indefinable lineage.

Contrary to their reputations, these pit bulls were mellow, and it reminded me of my notion that dogs’ personalities reflect the personas of their masters. There were big signs along the wall of the Trading Company that read, “No Dogs on Porch,” but the dogs didn’t seem to mind the warnings and it was apparent they had yet to learn to read.

Terlingua, Texas. ©Ken Rodgers 2014

Terlingua Ghost Town has a “durn good” restaurant named The Starlight Theater and is housed in the same location as an old movie theater that showed films back in Terlingua’s mercury mining heyday. Now it serves margaritas, beer and some mighty fine green chile.

The next morning we discovered our biggest treat in the ghost town…the cemetery. Most of the folks buried in this cemetery died during the influenza epidemic of 1919-1920, but there are markers for earlier deaths and surprising to us, folks are still being buried there. The graveyard is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the site of an apparently well-attended Day of the Dead celebration held in early November.

The graveyard is a work of art, in its own way, with simple wooden-cross grave markers next to complex adobe monuments. The individual graves are crammed up against each other with lots of ornaments lying around on particular gravesites. Jars for money, beer cans, flowers, and other mementoes make this the most interesting cemetery I’ve been in, and that is quite a few.

The funny thing about my impressions of Terlingua Ghost Town is the memories the experience evokes: When I was a kid, of barbeques down on the washes that ran through the Arizona of my youth; a cow carcass, butchered and marinated in salts and peppers and oils, then buried with searing mesquite coals; and friends of my parents with cans of Coors and plates piled with spicy potato salad and garlic bread. Or later, when I was a young man, frying chicken in Dutch ovens out west of Casa Grande, or if not chickens, then calf fries. Playing softball and volleyball. Drinking wine and whiskey watching the kids play, hoping they didn’t find a rattlesnake. Listening to Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix.

Besides the cemetery, the images around Terlingua are ghostly, the hard white and sun-faded hues of the peaks, the arroyos that have chopped the land in their haste to make a meeting with the Rio Grande. These images as they filter back into my mind are like goblins dressed in long white gossamer gowns that remind me of Halloween or the times when I was a child when my grandmother (who lived with us) used to cry out to her long dead mother. Memories.

Remembering Cam Cunningham

This is the season of remembrance and I suppose as we get older we can expect our opportunities to mourn and grieve to line up and bang at our metaphorical portals. This one is a bit tardy, but nevertheless, I choose to now write my remembrances.

Last summer Betty and I were traveling in the east when our friend Cam Cunningham died. We were far from northern California when his memorial celebration occurred, and even though I was sad, and am sad, I missed it. But in some ways I am also relieved that I was in Nova Scotia. Something about good-byes, especially final good-byes, bothers me to the point that I tend to elude them. Maybe what I do is elide. Elide in the sense that I slide around them, keep them at arms length if they must happen.

In some ways Cam and I were very different. I was one of the two or three resident rednecks of Sebastopol, California, and more than once he described himself to me as an Anarcho-Marxist. In terms of war, economy, history, we saw things very differently.

But we also had many things in common…more in common than we had in opposition. I first met Cam in a poetry class. I think it was the fall of 1995. He came into the classroom, a tall, long-haired man with a booming voice and a Texas drawl. He announced he planned to become a poet. Over the course of five weeks we found out, besides our differences, we shared some parallel experiences. When he was young, he’d hunted dove and quail, like I used to do. He was from the southwest and had lived and lawyered on the Navajo Reservation. I had not lived there, but I’d spent a chunk of the summer of 1963 on the res. We’d both been caught up in the craziness of the 1960s. We’d both been victims of ourselves…substance abuse and other personal disturbances. We both liked blues music. We both liked poetry. We talked football and baseball. We talked about the oil field and cowboys and….

Over the course of the next five years, I bumped into Cam a number of times, at street fairs and art shows…besides a poet, he was a painter.

In 2001, Cam became a student of mine. We worked on poetry together. He wrote and wrote, putting out copious amounts of poetry, musical things with snare drum rhythms and a voice often trapped between Baptist fundamentalism and Delta blues. His poems roughed you up at the same time as giving you a glimpse of the spiritual; a native mask, a prickly pear cactus, a bottle of Mescal, a stumble down a south Texas street, a native god sitting on a fence post both smiling and frowning at you. As my wife Betty says, “Cam was the closest thing to Magical Realism that I know.” When Cam wrote, your shoe soles were firmly on the ground while simultaneously bouncing along atop a Navajo country thunderhead. He also composed pieces that investigated how one segment of humanity tromps on another. He was blantantly political and irreverent while still remaining spiritual. Sometimes he would actually sing his poems and his voice would soar over the audience and lift the rafters. Cam could warble…he had a powerful baritone voice that was as familiar with scat as it was with old time rock and roll…way-back stuff, like Carl Perkins songs, and Elvis, and Johnny Cash. I really liked when he mixed spiritual-style music with the lyrics he composed. Made for some sweet hearing on my part. It wasn’t unusual to have him break out in song in any location, in the park, in a coffee shop, in class; something I had heard when my older sister played her little radio, like Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Tiny Bradshaw.

By 2005 I’d moved on to Idaho and he and I had become pretty good buddies. He’d been to see me. I’d gone to see him; had lunch with him fairly often at K & L Bistro where we both enjoyed juicy cheeseburgers of the highest quality. Then…Cam got sick. And even though I thought of him everyday, I stayed away. We got fairly regular reports about his progress…it didn’t sound good.

Finally, Betty and I went to visit Cam at his home up on the ridge where you can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Wind blew in the gum trees along the road. Cats sat on the deck and lounged around like nothing could be wrong. Cam sat trapped in a wheelchair and his appearance frightened me. Not for who he was, I think, but for a vision into what I will become one day. Sick and leaving this existence. He reminded me of a cadaver, a really old man, except for his eyes and the way he sat in that wheelchair, ramrod straight. Cam’s face had always been so alive and animated that I had never noticed the power in his eyes. Even in a weakened condition, those eyes reminded me of chunks of burning mesquite in a campfire. Orange and blue flame sizzling, and his mind too. Not much gone wrong on that end at all.

Of course we talked about a lot of things, one of them being the future and us…and when I left, I wondered if I’d see him again.

I didn’t, because he died not long after.

But I’m still thinking about him every day.