Richard and I left Marfa, Texas, last Thursday morning, bound for Las Cruces, New Mexico where I was scheduled to talk to a journalism class and teach an intensive writing workshop. As we drove across the grassy plains, we watched for aplomado falcons, boldly patterned, fast-flying hawks that once hunted birds and insects throughout the desert grasslands. Overgrazing and pesticide use nearly killed off these agile falcons in the American Southwest, but they’ve been reintroduced to the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas where we were.
We saw loads of fall-tan grama grass, spine-ridged desert mountains, creosote bush with its sparse olive-green canopy, tall yuccas, some red-tailed hawks, one kestrel chasing a small bird very energetically but not very effectively, and a couple of roadrunners sunning. But no aplomado falcons.
We did see this Border Patrol dirigible. Normally it floats high in the sky at
the end of its tether eying the U.S.-Mexico border. Only that day however, it was hauled close to the ground, looking
rather like some kind of enormous beached bathtub toy. (The building in front of the dirigible in the photo is the size of a mobile construction-site office to give you a sense of scale.) The dirigible is proof, if anyone needed it, that an armed border is a strange place.
We spent two days in Las Cruces, a city where we lived for seven years (or five books, as I measure time, since that’s how many I wrote there). Our brief visit included time enough for me to speak and teach, and for Richard to roam the campus of New Mexico State University and catch up with some of his former colleagues on the faculty. Also for us to eat some good green chile and see some of our friends. (Special thanks to Pam Porter, Ann Palormo and Las Cruces Press Women, and Barbara and Harold Harrison and their Scotty, Hallie.) Not time enough to see everyone we wanted, but we were on the homeward leg of our trip, and eager to be on our way.
Saturday morning we headed north on I-25, aiming to make it at least halfway home. As Richard drove, we called each other’s attention to familiar landmarks, including the narrow desert mountain ranges edging the wide Rio Grande Valley, beginning with the Organs, east of Las Cruces. (That’s the Organs above, from the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park.) The Organs give way to the the San Andres, the Sierra Caballo, the Fra Cristobal range, and in the distance the Sierra Oscura and towering beyond that, Sierra Blanca, the highest peak in Southern New Mexico. There’s a poetic rhythm to these names, in part because they’re in Spanish, a language to which singing comes more easily.
(That’s creosote bush above, the shrub whose olive-green leaves tint this part of the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s not especially memorable until you look close and see those yellow flowers and the funny cotton-fuzz seeds, or you smell its spiced-tar and honey fragrance, which suffuses the desert after rains.)
South of Socorro, New Mexico, we dived off the interstate at the exit labeled San Marcial, which despite the name, is out in the open desert with no sign of town unless you look very hard. (The town, which once boasted a railroad roundhouse and a Fred Harvey hotel, was wiped out when the Rio Grande flooded in 1929 and never rebuilt.) It’s now the back road to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, winter home to about 10,000 of the sandhill cranes that pass over our valley during their spring and fall migration, plus tens of thousands of snow geese and dozens of other species of birds and other wildlife.
The Bosque itself was in full autumn color, painting the wide and winding band of gold and orange in the photo above. (By the way, the word is pronounced “BOHS-kay,” not “BAHS-key,” and it means woods, as in the tangle of native cottonwood and willow, plus invasive salt cedar and Russian olive that lines desert rivers and streams like the Rio Grande.) And there were sandhill cranes around, loafing near the refuge’s many ponds, feeding in nearby fields, flying past on wide wings, long necks outstretched and legs trailing, and calling in their resonant voices. (Those gray birds in the photo below, under the gorgeously golden cottonwood tree, are sandhill cranes.)
After the stop at the Bosque, we sped north on I-25, stopping in Albuquerque to meet poet, writer, and botany junkie Sandra Lynn for a short and wonderful visit. We were too tired to drive all the way home, so we spent the night in Santa Fe. The next morning we stopped in Española to see Dale Doremus, a geologist who specializes in groundwater issues for the state of New Mexico. Dale and her partner, Bob, also cultivate an orchard of heritage fruit tree varieties, and she brought us a bag of their late apples, Arkansas Blacks. That’s Dale’s apples in the photo below, which does not do justice to black blush on their ruby-red coloring. These may be the most gorgeous apples I’ve ever seen, and they’re delicious too: spice and honey, like a winesap but crisper. (Thanks, Dale! We’ll be back for more….)
By the time we wound our way up the Rio Grande Gorge, through Taos, and north along the base of the Sangre de Cristos into the San Luis Valley, we were so tired, we were running on fumes. We had thought about stopping at Great Sand Dunes National Park, since our route took us right by the wave-like expanse of dunes. But we kept going, aimed for home. (We didn’t even stop to take a photo, as you can tell by the picture below, shot from on the road.)
Today we woke in our own bed, with its view of the pinon-pine-and-juniper-studded ridges across the river. We snuggled and did yoga; we ate our usual breakfast and basked in the morning sun coming in the living room windows. We plowed through stacks of mail
and email, washed three loads of laundry, and Richard even started cleaning up the guest apartment after the latest batch of vacation renters. And when we pulled back the row covers from the kitchen garden we discovered that the fall planting of lettuce mix not only survived being buried under two feet of snow with nighttime temperatures dropping to 12 degrees while we were away, it was ready for thinning! Eating those crisp and tangy leaves for lunch was the best gift of coming home. (Thank you, Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Seeds, for the Monet’s Garden and Paris Market lettuce mixes!)
It’s not going to be a long stay: Wednesday afternoon we’ll drive over the mountains again for Richard’s appointment with Oncology. But we’re here now, and that feels good. We may not know what’s ahead–who really does?–but we know this: We’re lucky to live in a place we love, to have each other, and to feel the love and good wishes coming from our community of family and friends. Bless you all!