Sunday, March 17, 2013

a four-day trip from the high plains of west texas, lubbock, to the chihuahuan desert, las cruces, to visit my aging parents; my wife and two kids went along. you couldn't get much further from the cold, wet, rainy saint patty's day weekends of the north, with hard drinking and raucous parades. the desert was even higher and drier than lubbock, with beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and desert cacti beginning to bloom.

this was the weekend of the bataan memorial march, in which people go out toward the white sands and walk, in some cases 26 miles, in memory of the soldiers who died in bataan in the war. an unusually large percentage of those soldiers came from new mexico, in particular southwestern new mexico, and the white sands area, wide and flat and incredibly sunny, is a good place to recreate the intense suffering of an inhuman march. there are memorial services throughout the area. why this would be on saint patty's day would be anyone's guess.

the drive from texas cuts down through plains, texas and then through the oil fields of artesia new mexico. before that we went through lovington new mexico, an almost surreal town, and after artesia we went through a town called hope, completely empty, a few boarded up stores is all it was. then way up into the mountains, and from there, crashing down to alamogordo and the white sands, which is a big hit with the kids. at the white sands the fine white sand gets in your toes and the sun is so bright your pupils close about as much as humanly possible. pictures will follow and be posted here eventually. it's kind of a family tradition to stop there and let kids be kids; it's a remarkable landscape to document their growing up.

the well basin of artesia is a busy place: roughnecks coming and going, well machinery outposts selling thousands of well-head constructions and pipes. the place smells like oil and it would be easy to look out at a field of oil rigs and say, that looks like prosperity, it smells like prosperity. in that one valley, there's a well every thousand feet, and in some cases pipes come up from the ground and a flame burns at the end of them, burning off excess gas, or whatever. people come and go regularly; it's a busy area. we keep looking for the pecos river, three times i've crossed it and not seen it, and if artesia was built on it originally i can't find evidence; it's a mystery of the lost river. in fact i've begun to wonder about the term "river" since so many of the washes and riverbeds in this part of the country are absolutely dry. high up in the mountains, though, i see some creek water coming down the mountains, and even see some unmelted snow in places. it restores my faith, to see real running water. coming back on the last day, i find the pecos. it's a tiny stream, past artesia, totally unmarked, but it has real water in it. it slips under the highway before the oil wells, and goes off to the south, toward carlsbad. i'm just beginning to learn this country.

not that i have any idea, really, why things are the way they are. the sun is so bright in the days, with nothing green to absorb it; it hits the yellowish desert sand, and buildings that begin falling apart, just keep falling apart, but never quite rot, or get removed, as there's nowhere to take them, so there are lots of old structures, emptied out, historical, standing around baking in the sun in these towns. and people just get used to this stuff, and go about living their lives, doing their business, looking idly at us since strangers passing through are obviously out of the routine. then, sometimes, the wind picks up, and other times it picks up a lot, and blows this orange dust around, and this started happening on our way home. tumbleweeds cross the road and go bouncing around on the yellow clay. the sky looks ominous like it might turn into a larger storm. the dust is orangish red; the natural thistle on the ground is bluish purple; the sky itself is gray though where there is sun it is still bright blue, and it becomes an ominous western desert scene.

i've become interested in the tumbleweed because of the airy way it bounces and floats around, and, when cotton is caught in it, it has the odd feeling of being an airborne surreal rabbit. people hit them with cars and carry them for miles, thinking nothing of it, but i'm still likely to swerve my car, unable to crush even a ghostly apparition, unless i can't avoid it. in movies they are said to symbolize desolation, but people around here are just used to them, and simply drive straight into them without even seeing them after a while.

i heard a scary story, though, while i was in las cruces. a guy, son of a friend, is working in the fourth story down, underneath the white sands missile range. he's called up by his superiors in the army, or maybe it would be air force. they tell him that large tumbleweeds, ten to twelve feet high, are hitting the electric fence and catching on fire. then, they are jumping the fence and heading for the parking lot, where, because they are on fire, they might burn the cars. he's told to take a vehicle and go run over them. now you would think his vehicle would be in danger of burning also, but maybe it's a tank. in any case he goes and does as told; he runs over the tumbleweeds, and renders them less dangerous.

and i'm thinking, four floors under?

but i don't worry so much about what all these people do underneath the surface of an enormous desert, that stretches out for miles and miles in every direction, a huge pristine white sandbox of dunes right in the middle of it for no apparent reason. let them plan things out, away from the sun, down where it's cool, protected. above ground, people come from all over to see the unusual sand formations; the bataan marchers walk as we drive past on the last day, one step at a time, across the massive desert. we see them as specks from the high mountain pass. some apparently end up in the hospital every year, having been unprepared, not having brought enough water, or the right shoes. maybe they feel like they've shared in the suffering, or taken on part of it. i'm not sure. it seems like the opposite end of the world from saint patty's day.


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