Betty and I are going north to Moscow, Idaho, to screen our documentary film BRAVO! and as always, the prospect of traveling to a new location leaves me with—besides a sense of elation—a sense of trepidation…sort of, anyway.
Not that I am on edge like I would be if I had to travel to Syria right now, but it will be a new experience going up north to meet new people, see new places. We’ve passed through Moscow on the way north or the way south, but this time we will actually be driving down the streets and meeting the people there, the folks at the university and in the town and the surrounding environs. Every time I go on one of these “new journeys” I have an underlying tension, a subtle doubt that simmers just below my typical bombast and bravado.
Going into unfamiliar territory also sets my scout and warrior senses on high scan. I can smell better, I hear better, I hear things that no one else can hear and I hear things that may not even exist. I hone in on details, the true color of a turquoise stone in a bolo tie, or the dimples in a Stetson hat or the precarious spiked nature of a pair of high-heeled shoes. The moment screens right there in my mind, cinemagraphic in high-grade Technicolor.
Traveling to new country happened to me a lot when Betty and I lived in New Mexico. Once a good friend of mine and I went quail hunting down in southwestern New Mexico, around Columbus where Pancho Villa invaded the United States in 1916. We arrived and found a camping spot on a piece of Bureau of Land Management land west of Columbus at a place known as Hermanas which virtually straddles both Mexico and New Mexico.
After dropping our gear and setting up camp, we ventured west along the international border between Mexico and the US to the Big Hatchet country and New Mexico’s boot heel and some of the most isolated spots on the US-Mexican border. We murdered red-hued rattlesnakes and visited with the two or three locals we met over the course of our two-hundred-mile jaunt. (I have previously written about this in several genres–fiction, essay, for instance–maybe even in this venue. The event impressed me, what transpired proved instructional.)
When we got back to camp we mixed biscuits and marinated T-bone steaks and baked potatoes and simmered pinto beans and roasted Big Jim chilies.
After nightfall, as we yarned, some pickup trucks appeared out on the highway and three long tall mean-fisted buckaroos showed up in dirty black hats. We could see the beams of their flashlights seek us out among the staghorn cacti. We could see hog leg pistols dangling from their right hands.
Talk about feeling alien. My friend conducted a heated discussion with them about who had property rights and why they didn’t want us camping there, even though it was federal land. They feared we were drug smugglers, or coyotes running illegals across the border, or that we were illegals camping out before moving on to New York or Chicago.
The firelight gleamed off their six eyes, one of which flipped and flopped every time that old farmer/cowpoke moved his head. Several times I thought we were going to have a shoot out, between folks who didn’t know each other…who were of the same race, same skin color, spoke the same language, were citizens of the same country and state. We obviously upset them as they tried to hide those hog legs up against their sides. The oak coals in our campfire sizzled and popped. The wind whispered around the thorns of the cacti and a great horned owl hooted over our controversy.
They were frightened of us…these big, black-hatted, hard-knuckled buckaroos. We were different, weren’t from around there, weren’t familiar to the straight road that ran along the bottom of Tres Hermanas.
We finally convinced them with logic—or maybe they were afraid we’d shoot them—that we meant no harm to anything except the quail we expected to kill the next day. So they left us and went on back to their trucks.
Right then, I understood how it must feel to an illegal, an alien, a person who does not belong to the cultural milieu of a particular place. And I’ve felt it before, but it wasn’t so visceral, so bone-shaking scary. Yes, I fought in Vietnam, but that was different in many ways, because I went to fight, to shoot at, to kill the people who supposedly hated me for what I represented. Not for who I was, but again, for what I represented.
There at Hermanas, I understood how it felt to be in a country in an illegal status. I felt how it was to be a “wetback” crossing into the States. I know those black-hatted buckaroos were frightened too, and concerned about what kind of activity was happening right there down the road from their houses, their families, their lives.
But at that moment they had power—familiarity with the arroyos and ridgelines, familiarity with the local folks—and they held hardware in the form of those long-barreled six-guns. Had we been the kind of undocumented travelers I’ve normally encountered along the border, we’d have had nothing but our feet to run with and our fear to drive us wherever we needed to go to keep from being killed or captured.
So it was with a different view towards aliens when later that year we again encountered some gentes crossing the Chihuahuan Desert on their way towards El Norte. My friend and I stood next to a mesquite thicket mid-morning, waiting for some sign of quail to shoot. The muggy sky glowered at us from gray clouds and scads of ravens flew across the horizon cawing their unknowable lingo.
As if they had been there all along, six men stood behind us, and when we got over the shock of being sneaked up on, I said, “Buenos dias.”
And one of them responded with a “Buenos dias” back.
I thought back to our experience with the black-hatted Hermanas gents with the hog leg pistols dangling from their right hands. I knew how that felt to be on the receiving end of those buckaroos’ fear and the concomitant reactions it generated in them. I smiled.
Even though my friend and I were armed, the six men we looked at didn’t seem particularly alarmed.
They wore straw hats and though it was a warm autumn day, they donned faded jeans jackets. They wore jeans trousers and carried sacks and cloth bags and cheap backpacks. Most wore sneakers of white and gold or red or blue on their feet. They looked about our age, but they looked harder, too, and maybe “harder” is not the best word. Maybe the word “seasoned” is a better way to describe them. One’s face was pitted with smallpox cicatrices and another had a large scar across the left side of his face. One wore a wispy black mustache that reminded me of fine feathers.
One of them asked me if we had work. I responded that we were only cazadores trying to shoot some codorniz. He must have thought we were locals because he asked me if I knew the farmer on whose farm we hunted. I recall looking out across the sorghum field and on to the low ridge of hills beyond. I shook my head and said, “No.”
“Gracias,” another one said and they moved on, across the dusty road and along the ditch that ran west of the sorghum field, over a barbed wire fence and into the desert. Towards El Norte.