A Zip Code of Their Own

During the day they floated everywhere, or maybe my imagination sees it like that. Into the Kellogg’s Special K and the all purpose flour and my cooling cup of coffee. They lit on the counter, the couch with the bed hidden inside, the fireplace hearth, and the green bedspread.

After the sun set beyond White Sands, they mobbed every source of light in town. It looked like the bowels of a blizzard.

In the house they’d batter their wings on the inside of the lightshades and when one approached my head, the wing flutter reminded me of choppers in Nam which was something I did not want to remember. I swatted them and smothered them and crushed them, caught them and threw them out the door.

Miller Moth

But it was after the lights went out that things turned weird. At first they attacked the lampshade, beating it with their wings and I’d wonder, without the lights, why they still made that racket. They harassed me like they knew I was guilty of turning out the lights. As if they wanted to get even, they were at my noggin. Maybe my skin, my bone radiated warmth, too, like the lamp, and they bored inside the lobes of my ears and the flutter magnified like a drill bit grinding into my brain.

Reinforcements showed up if I managed to swat the offenders. Next it was my nose, and then my eyelids as if they needed to pry them open and if I wasn’t careful, they invaded my mouth, bitter and powdery and wild with wing beats against my tongue.

It was annual. They came out in early summer about the time the yellow jackets started to flit around my face as if I was something to eat. Some years proved worse than others.

I once met a woman who’d been raised out on the Bell Ranch—which was so big it had its own zip code, 88441—outside of Tucumcari and the miller bugs must have been horrendous when she was a kid because she possessed a mortal fear of them. She wore a battered black John B. Stetson and her big, callused hands clenched and unclenched like she wanted to box. I bet myself she could waddy up with the best of buckaroos but when the miller bugs buzzed her she cringed and shrieked like a frightened three-year-old.

It may have been 1986 when they seemed the worst, the year after the state sprayed the woods to kill the spruce budworms. Although 1985, 1987, 1988 were also nasty.

The old-timers wondered—even they thought the damned miller bugs were bad—if spraying the woods for spruce budworms made the miller bugs worse.

These pests have come to mind because an acquaintance of mine is doing some research on miller bug larvae. She’s a scientist who works with ranch folks to solve problems on the ranges of the West.

According to the available information the miller bug larvae, called Army cutworms, like to eat cheat grass which is a noxious exotic plant that causes difficulties for range management folks. And from that point of view, maybe they are good for something—the miller bugs—consuming cheat grass.

Army Cutworm

Reading some of her posts on Facebook lead me to ponder my memories of miller bugs, actually called miller moths, but in the high Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico we called them miller bugs.

They came at you anytime and anywhere and a fine powder painted their wings that powder sluffed off when touched and that’s how they got their name, miller moths, after the flour dust that coated the clothing of grain millers.

The moths go to the mountains of the West in the summer, not unlike a lot of folks used to do when they came from the flats of Texas to enjoy the cool breezes and daily downpours of the southern Sacramento Mountains where Betty and I lived.

Evidently bears like to eat the moths because a lot of fat sits—maybe half a calorie per critter—in those little flitting bodies. According to some researchers, a grizzly bear can eat up to 40,000 of the moths per day…40,000…per day.

We didn’t have grizzlies in our New Mexico environs. They’d probably lived there before they were all killed. The last grizzly in New Mexico was slain in 1931, not in the Sacramentos, but in the Gila, over in the western part of the state.

When I think about a bear that can eat 40,000 moths in a day I think of people who run a thousand miles in ten straight days or someone who swims the English Channel.

Black bears—which come in many colors besides black: cinnamon, brown, I even heard tell of a white one—aren’t as big as grizzlies, but they are big enough and like their bigger cousins, they are omnivorous so I reckon they can put away a passel of moths in a day, too.

But no matter how many miller bugs the bears found hiding beneath limestone rocks and piles of dead pine needles in our New Mexico mountains, they never munched enough to suit me.

Now, standing here at my computer, I think of that young woman raised on the Bell Ranch in her big black sombrero and fancy ostrich skin boots, whose hands were rough like big grit sandpaper. I wonder if she wouldn’t have rather run on a grizzly than mess with those miller bugs.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I didn’t know the moths were here in Idaho, too, but evidently they’ve been gnawing on cheat grass in our locale. And that must be a good thing for the land.

Sometimes outside, on the walls of our house, I spy a moth that reminds me of a miller bug—maybe it is a miller bug—and then I think they aren’t because they fail to assault me. Or if they are, they must be some kind of weak-kneed cousin of those nasty attackers we battled in the Sacramentos.

Yep, down yonder in New Mexico they owned a reputation. And they backed it up with action. They were notorious and were expected every summer with a mountain’s worth of apprehension. They existed wide and tall and grotesquely handsome in the way folks imagined them. They were broad and historic like that old Bell Ranch out there with its very own zip code.

Maybe those miller bugs warrant a zip code of their own, too.

Maybe It Still Is

In the beginning, I only craved birds I could shoot and eat. But over the years, I’ve morphed into a watcher.

This last month, Betty and I have been driving around the West and observing a trove of avian critters.

Red-tailed hawks perched on every high point around the marshy fens near Klamath Falls, Oregon.

On the Sonoma coast, we spotted marbled godwits and willets nudging sand as the ebbing tide left prey for them.

In New Mexico, we sought cranes, the sandhill variety, thousands of them to delight all the photographers with the long, long lenses. And then the frantic eruptions of huge flocks of snow geese.

In Arizona where the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan Desert meet, we sought the elegant trogon, which to me is a holy grail of birds. Why? Maybe it’s the word. Elegant. That’s nomenclature not often common in the milieu in which I’ve existed.

In my early years it was mourning dove, Gambel’s quail, chukar, ring-necked pheasant and wild turkey.

My father loved to go fowling and I think it was something that his brothers and he did all the time during the depression. They lived in a house with fourteen or fifteen relatives and siblings. There was never enough to eat.

I’ve chased quail of multiple species across sorghum fields and desert flats, the undulations of sagebrush country. I’ve hidden in the woods as my hunting partner tried to gobble up a big tom, and I’ve scaled frozen hillsides chasing chukar through ten-degree dawns.

When I was young, I loved the chase and the thrill when what you shot plopped in a miniature cloud of dust.

I always considered myself someone who respected nature and especially the things I hunted. There were rules and requirements and there was proper behavior, a respect for the quarry, the law, and your fellow hunter, and for the landowner, too.

But I think the best of us often fall off the wagon as we wend our way through life. I recall northwest Kansas, the early 80s. Blue-knuckle cold and raspy wind and a gaggle of hunting partners with Springer Spaniels.

Back then I was sulled up like an old black bull that’s wandered off into a quicksand bog, and no matter how hard he struggles, can’t get out.

A man from Colorado Springs and I broke off from the hunting group and hiked around a big marsh, cracking sick and dirty jokes, laughing about stuff that the rest of the world wouldn’t see as particularly funny. At that moment, I felt the two of us were kindred and cynical, somehow bonded.

I noticed a flock of small birds fly into a bush growing next to the rough trail where we stalked. As we drew close, the sounds of their chirps and singing reached out and circled me like hymns you’d hear in the Christmas season and the red and blacks, mixed with the varying shades of russet in the surrounding soil and vegetation created a color palette that thrummed.

I stopped. Something boiled my guts like big heartburn. I lifted my twelve-gauge and hulled away, one, two, three times.

Gunpowder stench drilled into my nose as a slow smoke coiled from the end of my weapon’s barrel. I stomped to the bush but the only thing I found were tattered leaves on the ground.

I spewed a string of vulgarisms and something about not being able to hit a bull in the ass with a fiddle when I noticed my companion looking at me askance.

Our camaraderie hightailed like a flock of starlings that just figured out that a northern goshawk is swooping in for the kill.

For decades, the memory of all those pretty, scattering black and red birds has fluttered into my mind, me feeling like a creep who keeps bugging the head cheerleader at the high school prom.

I am not sure why but I perpetually ponder the need for killing. When I was a kid with a BB gun, we shot at doves and sparrows and anything else that moved, including each other.

One day I rode my bike past the J home and the three J brothers were out in the vacant lot next door. I lifted my BB gun and shot F, the oldest brother, in the ass. The report of that BB hitting its target rushes at me across the dusty decades.

Later, I learned to kill doves and quail with a shotgun and mule deer and pronghorns with a rifle, and then I joined the Marines Corps and the tenor of the killing changed. In Vietnam I tried like hell to kill communists, but I’m not sure I was successful.

One evening during the Siege of Khe Sanh, I snuck down the trench as incoming roared, exploded and shook the red ground beneath my feet. On top of the platoon’s command bunker lay one of my Marine buddies. He gripped an M-14 rifle with a starlight scope. I asked him what he was up to.

“Killing gooks.”

Right then I wanted to “kill gooks,” too. They’d surrounded us, pounded us, killed our mates. They had scared us into realms where fear was so powerful, multilayered and pervasive that, if we lived, we would never escape its ability to reduce us to skittering, paranoid animals for the rest of our lives.

I climbed up there and demanded to be part of the action, and he complied. He wasn’t excited about it, but in the spirit, I suppose, of brotherhood and Semper Fi, he handed me the rifle. Its cold stock felt like manna in my hands. As I placed my eye to the scope, I witnessed blurry images of heads and shoulders popping up and down across a long distance and those are what I shot. I don’t know if I hit anyone, but damn it, at the moment, I needed to. And maybe I did kill someone and maybe there’s a picture of him, or her, on a shelf somewhere in Hanoi, a remnant of a person.

And at the time, shooting at those North Vietnamese soldiers didn’t feel any more momentous than shooting at white-winged dove the first day of hunting season.

And now, as I recall the sneer of the man out there in the cold Kansas wind, I suspect that something was wrong with me when I shot at those innocent little birds in Kansas, and my need to go around shooting them was the tip of an iceberg of another order.

Maybe it still is.

But I Won’t

The cock’s crow rattled me and sent my mind marching through memory’s journeys: into an old barnyard where I once stepped on a rotten egg while watching a big black-and-red rooster send out his call, the sickly pop of the decayed shell followed by the stink of the gas that hung in my nose for hours after Mother came and hauled me home; or down the muddy chuckholes of Beech Street where roosters sparred in a chicken coop beneath an ancient mesquite tree that the neighborhood kids said housed a spirit who could speak to rattlesnakes.

Betty and I have been on the road for a little over two weeks and are now snug in a three-hundred-year-old adobe in New Mexico near where the crowing cock lives. We’ve been here several days, admiring the ancient pine vigas holding up the roof and the micaceous clay plaster shimmering on the walls and the ancient floors that once felt the thump and thunder of dancers hundreds of years past when this adobe was part of a larger rancho.

One of the details about this area, called Talpa, is that it is a place of “brujas” and memories keep ghosting into my recall—not just rooster and cock crows, but other things that I suspect have barged into my mind because of all the things we’ve seen on this trip while motoring through rain and snow and peaks and deserts, canyons, ponderosa forests, redwoods sweeping the fog off the tops of ridges; days so clear they sting because of the singular lines between the blue of the sky and the snow-capped peaks beyond; and the cattailed marshes in the foreground are as pure as a spirit who tells no lies. Who knows, maybe the recollections are haunted by the spell of a local bruja living down Archuleta Road.

My memories usually turn to something more visceral, where I am captured in a concrete space where actual time has taken leave and left me mired—but not always, sometimes I’m in a sweet space that candies up the moment—in the details of a particular incident ten, twenty, thirty years gone, or maybe more.

This time it could be all the fog on the trip. As we drove, the clouds hung like shifty gray shrouds on the black macadam winding through the wild country between the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains. And then we encountered the fog that rises from a warmer, damp ground when smothered beneath cold air hovering overhead.

As I lay on the bed and looked at the log vigas in the old adobe, those recent fog images hurled me back fifty-plus years to a bleak and lonely night on the Laotian border when me and a Sioux Marine we called “Chief” were on a listening post in a curtain of mist so thick I damned near drowned in a pool of it as I crept down a trail I could only sense beneath my muddy jungle boots.

Chief and I tried to sneak about our grim business, like quiet death after a long coma, but we scraped and jingled where our dungarees met our web gear and our steps in the mud sounded like the sucking noise you make when rocking your boots out of wet, red clay.

We set up our listening post on the lip of a huge bomb crater and tried like hell to make out what ghosted within the haze that hurried past our chilled faces as it traversed west to east like a thief leaving Las Vegas heading to Salt Lake.

It’s funny how the imagination dredges up specters full of danger when you can’t see, and we listened for anything other than the sound of the fog, its cold voice like a low sonorous chant from an all-male chorus in an ancient Capuchin monastery.

And, in my memory at least, the fog was gone before we could contemplate it leaving, and we were stunned with a night so bright that the wet mud from the bomb crater reflected light at us that rendered me naked, a frightened waif, waiting to die.

The moon was full and as big as the snout on a five-hundred-pound bomb, and off in the distance, the flicker of stars went on and off like interstellar messages sent via semaphore.

And then, as if the night was meant to be a parade of differing tempers, a thunderstorm roared in from the same direction the fog had come, and we were lit up not by moonlight, but by lightning that crashed and boomed so close, the ground we sat on shook, and the rain came at us like cat’s claws followed by hail as hard as machinegun rounds and then the rain beat upon us again. Sheets and sheets of it shrieked out of the black.

We rolled up in poncho liners and donned ponchos, but soaked to the marrow of my backbone, I began to shiver, and then I began to shake and my teeth chattered so hard, I feared the enemy could hear them.

Chief, a man of few words, grabbed my poncho and pulled it over my head and I began to scrabble, all arms and legs, to make him stop, and then he yanked my poncho liner from around my body and exposed me to the horrible blare of the rain and thunder. Then he rolled up against me and put his arms around me and we were suddenly beneath poncho liners and ponchos and then he whispered, “Blue-eyed boy, you got hypothermia”—something I’d never heard of and something I felt Chief knew nothing about. “Settle down, Blue-eyed boy, hypothermia can kill your dumb ass.”

Those words frightened me and as the rain settled into a steady drizzle, I gradually stopped shaking.

What bothered me as much as fog and thunder and mud and lightning and rain was the fact that we—two warriors exposed to the elements and whomever might be crawling through the soggy night to slice our throats—were trapped in a momentary intimacy that felt taboo in a way that United States Marines back in 1967 would never understand. And I felt that lack of understanding and I envisioned myself as weak, unfit, and violated, although I had not been violated. I feared that my fellow Marines up on the hill would find out what Chief had done to…to…save me, and I would be stamped, forever marked.

But neither of us ever said a word and several months later Chief rotated home and I sometimes, at night, see his thin face smirking from my cold, damp dreams. I am haunted by my inability to contact him out there in South Dakota and thank him for saving me; and I have thought about driving back there on one of Betty’s and my adventures and talking to him, but I never have and probably never will.

He may be dead, he may not want to relive the memories of that war, he may not want to see me and talk to me about that night where he wrapped his arms around me and chased the killing cold from my body. He may, he may, he may…I know, they are excuses and I should analyze them, take them apart like a Marine disassembling an M-16 in the pitch black of night.

But I won’t.

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.

On the Snake and Other Rivers

On Christmas Day, Betty and I ventured south of Boise down to the Snake River Canyon for photography and a look at the wigeons and goldeneyes, the sheep grazing in the snow covered sage, and the river.

The Snake is a long river that starts in Idaho with major contributions to its flow rising in Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon. By taming the Snake, engineers in the early 20th Century set the table for an agricultural explosion on the Snake River Plain, a region of harsh winters and summers and little precipitation.

Snake River Plain Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

Where I live, the Snake offers, among other things, recreation, wildlife habitat, electrical power, irrigation water and photographic opportunities. Idaho’s famous spuds rely on the waters of the Snake.

I think we often take rivers for granted. I know I do, assuming that they are there to offer up the varieties of satisfaction I require at any particular moment. Need a cold drink of water further chilled by chunks of ice? Check. Need to turn on the lights in the backyard so I can cipher what is making all that racket? Check. Need a photo op? A sturgeon? A view of some flashy male wood ducks? Check. Check. Check. Need a fresh spud?

Here in Boise we have the Boise River running right through downtown, and the Snake, the Jarbidge, the Bruneau, the Owyhee, the Malheur and the Payette aren’t far away. Most of the time I don’t even think about them unless there is something I want to do along a riverbank or I start fearing that they may flood.

When I was a kid on southern Arizona we lived in the middle of what had been at one time the Santa Cruz River which flowed from the mountains on the US-Mexican border and then hung a left turn at Tucson and headed west-northwest for the Gila River. My grandmother told me that when she was young, around 1900, the Santa Cruz carried steamboats from the Phoenix area to Tucson, that there were critters in the river, fish and otters and such. By the time I was born, there was nothing left of the Santa Cruz but sandy places in the dirt roads that ran out through the country. Here and there a bridge went over a low spot which had at some point been part of a river conduit. There was a Santa Cruz County and a Santa Cruz high school and names of old Santa Cruz River channels on maps, but until the wild rains occasionally showed, the Santa Cruz River was only a rumor.

Boise River Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

In the summer of 1964 it got up with a fury that was startling. Three of my friends and I went out driving to look at all the WATER in that desert and alas got stuck in the mighty flow of the Santa Cruz. We could see Francisco Grande, where the major league San Francisco Giants practiced some spring training. One friend and I decided to walk over there and call some friends to come pull us out. What, under normal circumstances, would have been a short evening walk turned out to be an ordeal: bobbing over our heads down surprising channels, dirty water in our mouths, our eyes, our noses, having to use greasewood to pull ourselves across places that wanted to pummel us downstream. Besides the threat of shattered bones or drowning, we didn’t even think about all the critters displaced by the flood: raccoons, skunks, coyotes, badgers, all with the capability of clawing and gnawing had we been unfortunate enough to encounter them. And I don’t even want to think, these some forty-nine years later, about the snakes; side winders and diamond backs and tiger rattlers and Mojave rattlers and coral snakes abused by the assault of muddy waters in their dens and that had to climb up into the foliage that we used to help us navigate the entire maelstrom. Ouch!

Not far from my hometown were the San Pedro, the Salt, the Verde, the Hassayampa, the Agua Fria and the Gila which are all dammed and don’t allow much flow. But in the ferocious times, like the storms of September 1984, they can roar ten miles wide and destroy everything in their paths. Back then, the rivers cut the state of Arizona into blocks where it often took a plane or helicopter ride to get from one place to another. Roads were pretty useless.

When I domiciled in Vietnam, there were big rivers everywhere. Right after I arrived, a Seabee drowned on the Song Vu Ghia in Quang Nam Province, and they helicoptered Second Platoon of Bravo Company, 1/26, out to a sand bar in that river. We landed in a hail of sand and rifle fire, the snap of AK-47 rounds pinging our ears and white sand dancing at our feet. We got on line and assaulted a paltry row of trees, but alas, the enemy had evaporated right before our eyes. We saw nothing of the drowned Seabee.

Later, at Khe Sanh, we crossed the Song Rao Quan in the summer of 1967. I was the first to cross to the south bank on a patrol Second Platoon ran in support of First Platoon which were ambushed on Route Nine which runs parallel to the river. We spent a soggy night on a hill further south of the river. I remember that my fingers looked like the wrinkled digits of fishermen as we set in, waiting for an attack that never came. The only thing that came was the incessant rain. The next day we headed back to Route Nine. But instead of a shin-deep, quiet flow, the river was hissing in anger. But we were Marines with a mission, so we crossed the river. A Jarhead swam across with the end of a thick rope. He secured the rope to a big tree and we began to hazard the battering of the water.

One of our radiomen lost his footing and his hold on the rope and went floating towards Quang Tri, twenty-five or thirty miles downstream. His feet were in the air, and he pedaled, as if on a bike, as if that might save him. He reminded me of a beetle when you turn it over on its back. The furious kicking of the legs. As if that would save it from death. Someone went downstream and waded into the river and brought him across. That happened three or four times to different Marines. Some of us could not swim at all. Some of us swam well. We all made it and climbed up onto the road and then up a hill. I walked point, sure that the enemy had set in on the high ground we’d occupied before we went south across the river. But they had not. No booby traps, no sign.

Snake River Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

When Betty and I lived in New Mexico, we homesteaded near the Rio Peñasco which in many places you could step across. But why not, New Mexico is a dry land with scant rivers. I heard tell that the Mescalero Apaches spoke of a time when the only place to get a drink of water was the Rio Grande or the Rio Pecos. The space in between is a mighty distance. You would die of thirst if you had to traverse the desert and the mountains and the plains between without a taste of water.

When Betty and I lived in Sonoma County, it was the Russian which was a docile rio until the winter rains lifted it over its banks, ruining houses and farms and vineyards. And it was the same with the nearby Eel and Gualala and Napa and Petaluma Rivers as they belched their muddy waters into the Pacific Ocean or San Pablo Bay.

And here we are now in southwestern Idaho, a parched land with lots of rivers. We often take them for granted.

Endless Autumn

I was reared in the deserts of southern Arizona and the fall of the year was like most of the year. Dry and dusty. And it could be hot, too. So when I heard people gasp and praise the colors of New England or the vast aspen groves of the Wasatch chain, it did little to stir my innards. I looked at photos and yes, the reds and oranges, yellows and golds, russets all were pretty but little did I understand how those colors in real life could rivet your eyes to the serrated edges of leaves, the black of ash tree branches hiding behind the bright gold of the leaves, the shimmer of the blood red aspen leaves ringing high New Mexican meadows.

Garden Valley, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

And yes, I did live in New Mexico and there I became aware of the acres and acres of aspen that grew in the cold spots of the Sacramento Mountains. Some years the autumn reds and golds blazed, and some years not. Some Septembers the rains came in phalanxes of black and gray and tormented the leaf peepers from the desert climes of Texas and the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Those years the leaves immediately went from green to a wan yellow pocked with dark spots and quickly to dull black. A wet mess that instead of drifting in a brisk breeze like flags on top of an alpine bed and breakfast, fell splat in damp blankets that pasted the ground beneath the trees.

I’ve lived almost all of my life in the west and I’ve seen the best the west has to offer in terms of fall color, so when people say that Ruidoso or Taos or Heber City or Squaw Valley rival the colors of New England I am here to tell you that generally speaking, those folks are hyping real estate or some other reason to get you to come to their country. The hills of Maine and Vermont and New Hampshire are without a doubt one of the most outstanding places to be when the maples show their flashy—yes, I think I can say—their brazen petticoats of autumn. When I say outstanding, I mean in the world, the planet, the universe as we know it from our tiny point of view.

Aspen, Wood River Valley, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

But…but, there is often a but…this year, 2013 in the western United States, from my vantage point, has to be one of the most amazing years for color that I’ve ever seen…maybe the most amazing, and this includes the autumns of New England.

Betty and I were in Garden Valley, Idaho, for the initial turn of the aspen, and then in the Wood River Valley, and the Stanley Basin of Idaho. And the colors rose up off the leaves and glared at me as if I was being inspected by the trees and I must say, it made me feel small, made me feel wanting, and that feeling was followed by an exhilaration that was mindful of balloons rising in the fall of the year over Albuquerque.

By way of a caveat, I will say that one of the things that made the 2013 colors of autumn in Idaho so outstanding was the contrast between the blaze of tints and the harsh sage brush and cheat grass land surrounding the rivers and creeks and seeps that snake down the mountains, hills and valleys of Idaho. And it wasn’t just aspen and cottonwoods and maples and ash trees that seemed to glow in the brisk, sunny light, it was the riparian willows turned to red and gold as they defined where water runs in this arid land.

Salmon River Country, Stanley Basin, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

But of course, the colors of autumn are ephemeral and leave us too soon, and leave us, too, with the sad knowledge that winter lurks in the near future.

But as Idaho’s autumn tints began to dim, Betty and I went south and found the colors just starting to show in Nevada, like huge surprises, the cottonwoods on the Truckee River as it meandered off the Sierra Nevada into the sinkholes of Central Nevada, and up and up over the top at Donner and down into the Sacramento River Valley, the colors less aggressive, still with a benign green that promised an autumn to arrive real soon, in the week, the weeks coming…and just for a moment I hoped for an endless autumn.

Donner Lake, Sierra Nevada, California Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

But there are no endless autumns. Autumn to me parallels the period of my life that I now inhabit. An autumn where the colors are so vibrant they leave me searching for the meaning of beauty, where the days are brisk and drive energy into tired bones. And the sadness that comes as you understand that what is to come will be more like the rubbed-raw blast of winter.

On El Norte and Moscow

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.

The Wind

The wind blows in Idaho this time of year. Totes the angry vestiges of another aging winter. Grass leans, limbs break, birds balance in the tops of aspen branches that tilt away from the gales that holler off the east Oregon desert. Time moves east to west around here, the wind sweeps west to east and yells back at us about what we time-mailed West Coast way yesterday.

And yesterday the wind blew, and last week, most of the week except for one or two golden days where the rays made us think of planting spinach and snap peas; but then, here it rolled in again, the blustery breath of early spring, stirred up by differences in barometric pressure. Wind is air movement pushed out of high pressure areas into low pressure areas. Winds create havoc in hurricanes and typhoons, can lift the land off the top of Wyoming and haul it all the way to the bottom of the Atlantic. It carves, cuts and makes you crazy.

Once Betty and I stood above the Palais de Papes in Avignon, Provence, admiring a late spring view of the Rhone, the hills, the old town, when a blast of hot air known locally as the Mistral almost knocked us over. I recall reading somewhere about that wind, and Gauguin and Van Gogh and how the Mistral helped drive Van Gogh crazy.

When I lived in southern Arizona, the wind got up in the spring and blew a layer of dust for days, stinging eyes, skin, the leaves of newly planted pansies, testing your ability to stay focused on the business of getting by. In the summer, great hullabaloos formed up over Tucson and harangued our way, as if to furiously eradicate the city of Phoenix and everything in between.

I lived in that desert in early the seventies, not too long back from the war and metaphorically speaking, walking backwards into a stiff gale. In 1972 I recall standing outside my house and watching one of those brief and violent late afternoon holocausts rear up and try to exterminate everything in its way. Spiny Sonoran Desert mountain ranges over four thousand feet up were dwarfed by the chocolate brown fury. It roiled and rolled, like a flood rush of muddy water. When it attacked us, the sky turned black, trailer houses moved twenty feet to the northwest, telephone poles snapped like match sticks, privet bushes lost half their leaves. Everything and everywhere owned a coat of fine brown clay.

When Betty and I lived in the high mountains of southern New Mexico, the wind blew from late February through May. Steady. Brisk. The moan and whine of old spruce trees as they rubbed up against each other and the wood in your back porch deck. The gales, gusts, and breezes that hauled Arizona’s surface over the Gila massif, the Black Range, the San Andres, finally picking up the white gypsum sand outside of Alamogordo. Plastering it on the sides of mountain top Ponderosa pine and red fir so that it looked like snow. The season of creaks and cracks and listening to the trees complain in the middle of the night. Worrying about the hood of your car. The roof over your bed.

In Cloudcroft, NM, the bars bustled that time of the year. Men stormed in and threatened each other with big Bowie-type knives, .357 magnums, fists, snow shovels. The schnapps and cheap whiskey spilled all over the bar tops. Boot heels up in the air. Old woodstoves smoking where the melting snow leaked in and dripped dripped dripped.

Everyone seemed on edge. That was the time of boredom, before planting, before moving the cattle, often too muddy to go into the woods to work. Just time to drink and dream and stew. That’s when the Apaches would come to town and irritate half the white folk. I don’t know if it was all on purpose, the back and forth between the white folk and the natives. But it bubbled up everywhere: in the mercantile, the gas station, the Western Bar. Barkeep Frieda used to get after the young Apache men as they taunted her over their glasses of draft Budweiser. She’d call the law. They’d laugh. The law would show up. Sometimes a fight ensued.

Once a young Apache man came to town and ran out of gas in his pickup. The wind blew that day, too. I recall the fluttering skirts and scarves of women bustling on the boardwalk, the American and New Mexican flags slapped straight out from the flag pole.

That young Apache man went around and begged for change to buy a couple of gallons of gas. I sat in the Western Cafe and drank hot coffee and watched. He tried at the gas station. They threw him out of the bank. He walked up to the door of the bar, but thought better. I don’t know, maybe he’d been kicked out of there before when he wasn’t so needy.

He went from store to business to store down the length of Burro Street. Out of sight I wondered about all the animosity between whites and browns, whites and yellows, black and brown, yellow and red, hell, anything that makes one different is enough to start the process, like a little breeze that gets up in the afternoon, then steadies into a wind that gusts with particular fury. Sometimes it’s a typhoon and blows the world down onto its knees.

After finishing my coffee, I walked down to the post office to get the mail. The wind forced me to tilt my back into it. People in the street leaned this way and that, any way they could to fight the power of what they could not stop.

After I checked my mail box, I saw that young Apache standing at the door, hitting everyone up for change. He wasn’t having any luck and I wondered how I could slip by him and out into the wind. I didn’t want to get caught and have to say, “No.”

For a moment, a gaggle of women dammed up against the entrance…purple pant suits and the quilted outers of down jackets. L. L. Bean boots. I saw my chance to escape but by the time I arrived at the door he was standing forlorn and single. I figured if I didn’t look him in the eye, he’d leave me be, but for some reason I looked him in the eye. What I saw was nothing to fear.

He said, “Hey, man, I ran out of gas and I…”

I already knew his story. It’s as old as mankind. For some reason, against my will, I stuffed my right hand in my Levi pocket and pulled out a lump of dollar bills, quarters, pennies, dimes.

I shoved it at him, “That’s all I got.”

I swear some tears rose in his eyes and I doubt it was from the wind. He started to pull off a silver and turquoise ring the size of my thumb, and said, “Here, man,” but I threw out my clenched fist and said, “Naw, ain’t necessary.”

He began to say something else, but I didn’t stick around, just had to get out into that wind.

On Elko

The halfway point of winter in the northern hemisphere has arrived here in Idaho with dry and warm weather. Trapped in some kind of drought, I suppose I should be saying stuff like, “We need snow in the mountains, we need rain on the flats,” or maybe I should be circling around dancing with my arms stretched towards the sky. But I am a pilgrim here from southern climes and must say that I enjoy the mild weather.

Last week we peregrinated down to Elko, Nevada for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and the mild days and cool nights were much to my liking. We still got to take photos of the snowy flats below Wild Horse Crossing, and the blood red and yellow-orange willows that ganged the banks of the frigid east fork of the Owyhee River. We captured images of lipstick red berries backed by river ice. We shot pictures of horses and pronghorns and starlings and eagles and the thin clouds that scraped the blue like whispered rhymes from the mouths of poets.

Berries and Ice

We took photos of poets, too, and cello players and singers. We took pictures of partiers, painters, big Stetson hats, red cowboy boots, gold-tinted neon signs and all manner of other things Elko. We listened to an array of tunes from traditional drover songs to a capella pieces redolent with the new that lives in the old west…we heard jazz, the blues, folk, cowboy music, Mexican lullabies and Crow Indian chants.

I think the number of visitors to the Gathering must have been down this year because things seemed a little less frantic in Elko as we trooped around and met with old friends and new friends. That’s one of the most important things Elko is to me….friends. An amazing compendium of styles…political, poetical, musical, philosophical and generational show up and mingle. A tolerant mood holds forth and accepts long hair and short hair, cattle rancher and sheep man, octogenarian folk singer and yodeling ten-year-old.

Owyhee Horse

Elko is surrounded by mountain ranges that capture snow and shadow like a painter’s canvas. When the winter light lies down at low angles, the land seems to smother the sheen, leaving a splendidly muted scene where ice and rocks and cottonwoods meet. The long draws and dips of the foothills remind me of a soft-voiced mother singing a lullaby to her child.

There have been years when you could hardly get out of Elko because of the snow and the wind. One year I set out south to view the Ruby Mountains, but a gale got up and drove the snow so blatantly as to blind me. That year it seemed to snow every night, all night and it was a chore to clean off the windows of the car so you could make it the half mile to the venues to hear Paul Zarzysky recite his poems. Or Henry Real Bird chant in Crow, or Wallace McRae throw down a bucolic challenge to oil and mining companies ravenous for the raw fuels that percolate beneath the surface of the west.

This year, the Western Folklife Center brought in a lot of performers from the southwest and that fluttered the chambers of my innards. I lived many years in Arizona and New Mexico, so the music and the poems and the stories all delighted me, drawn from agricultural milieus flavored with the curious mingling of Spanish, Anglo and Native American.

Cowboy Poets

That stuff makes my blood run hot. Takes me back to a memory home. A place I can only return to in my mind. The wild land as remembered is now homes and cars and racetracks and highways, but in my mind, my memory, I can see blankets of sheep cover the draws beneath the conical hills of the Sonoran Desert. I see the pine-clad peaks that jut up like isolated islands in a sea of ocotillo and saguaro. I can hear the songs of tamales and conquistadors, of the time before the white man, before the Native American tribes now on the land, the time before….the time of Anasazi, Hohokam and Mimbres culture…petroglyphs and rock art and primitive irrigation systems that served thousands, adobe castles crammed into the naves of canyon rock.

It was once my land, the land in which I lived, and still it’s the land of my mind.

All hail Elko…where memories rear up out of verses of poetry and song.