A Day of Exploration One Hundred and Thirty-One Years Ago

Casa del Ainsworth, if you will, rises on a small bit of ground about midway in elevation between the Organ Mountains to the east and Las Cruces to the west. From the downward slope of the range’s west side, the geological strata are slightly higher above sea level than the nearby capital city of Doña Ana County. Ironically and with a touch of human hubris, this bench is referred to as the East Mesa, due to its location relative to the man-made settlement. More properly, though, this natural feature ought to have a more poetic name. In bland binary terms, the East Mesa is so-named to distinguish it from the West Mesa, which rises beyond the right bank of the Rio Grande. Thus, an east-west cross-section of Las Cruces reveals the Organ Mountains, a mesa at the foot of its western slopes, the town itself, the river, and then an uplift to complement the opposite bench. Bland or not, though, those are the names of the mesas we’re stuck with. Missed was the opportunity to call them Tierra Seco or Conejo Wash or Sagebrush Plains or some such whimsical and intriguing name. “So it goes,” sayeth Linda Ellerbee.

Despite the uninspiring appellation of “East Mesa,” its natural beauty awed a three-man party in the spring of 1891. From faraway Boston, Massachusetts, Charles H. Ames had learned of the Organ Mountains in the Territory of New Mexico, and as a climber, he set out to see this range for himself. He brought along a fellow enthusiast named B. K. Benson, a denizen of New Orleans, Louisiana. Ames was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, a group organized in his hometown whose members reveled in the thrill and danger afforded by mountaineering in the late-Nineteenth Century. The club published a journal containing accounts of their exploits of discovery, often writing about the difficulties and hardships of climbing into unknown reaches of one mountain range or another. Undoubtedly, one reason Ames traveled to the Territory of New Mexico in May of 1891 was to write about an excursion of his own design to regale his kindred climbers in New England.

For Ames and Benson, the journey to the Chihuahuan Desert from their distant locales surely was an arduous trip. Not only were the miles long, but upon arriving in El Paso they bore the brunt of a common hazard of travel in the West. “Ordinarily the connection is easy by rail,” Ames later wrote of the route between El Paso and Las Cruces, “but extraordinary floods had prevailed, and both railway and carriage-road had been washed out so seriously that I was obliged to make a wide detour and to approach Las Cruces from the north.” He and Benson, therefore, “went on northwest by rail by the Southern Pacific to Deming, some fifty or seventy-five miles; then northeast nearly as many more, to Rincon, where we again crossed the Rio Grande to its eastern bank, only to find that on the north as well as on the south approach to Las Cruces by rail was cut off by the turbulent river. There was no way for us but to secure the best conveyance we could and make the forty-mile trip across the desert,—there known as the Jornado del Morte [sic], or the Journey of Death, in grim commemoration of disastrous expeditions across its waterless and treeless expanse in early times.” At long last, though, upon slowly approaching Las Cruces one long mile after another, the two wayfarers constantly observed the jagged uplift “which presented a very striking and peculiar appearance of vertical ribs of stone of great size and regularity, and at once provoking the comparison to organ-pipes; and later on we were interested to know that they bore this very name in both the Spanish and English tongues.”

A view of the Organ Mountains from west of the Rio Grande a few decades ago. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

The mountaineers arrived in Las Cruces on about May 15, 1891, and their inquiries of the local populace about the routes to ascend into the Organs proved fruitless. No one they spoke with had ever attempted such a foolhardy act due to their conviction that it was impossible to climb to those lofty summits. [Editor’s note: The leopard in Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” assuredly would have disagreed!] Their thwarted efforts to gain any first-hand knowledge of the mountains was somewhat lessened upon making the acquaintance of Elmer Ottis Wooton, a professor of botany on faculty at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. Only sixteen months earlier, in January 1890, Wooton had received an appointment as the Territory’s first resident botanist when much of the flora of the Chihuahuan Desert and the Organ Mountains remained to be discovered. During his two decades at the college, Professor Wooton identified and cataloged numerous previously unknown species of bushes, trees, flowers, and weeds native to the region, but I ought to keep on with the story at hand.

Settled only forty-two years earlier, Las Cruces embodied many of the attributes of a town on the frontier. Its appearance likely startled Ames and Benson somewhat, being more accustomed to the architecture, streetscapes, and society of Boston and New Orleans. The town’s dusty lanes stretched out along the one- and two-story buildings fronting Main Street and indeed throughout the town. On the north end of the town’s main thoroughfare rose St. Genevieve’s Church, while the Loretto Academy anchored the street’s south end. In between these two edifices, as the two wayfarers strolled along this Western promenade, their eyes were not treated to the visual delights of the architectural blending of Spanish and French tastes of the buildings on the banks of the Mississippi River nor to the fashionable and elegant buildings fronting Boylston Street and Clarendon Street in Boston. Rather, their eyes feasted on rough-hewn but comfortable jacales, adobes with thick walls and flat roofs, and a scattering of wood-frame or adobe residences displaying the peacock feathers of the Italianate, Queen Anne, and Territorial styles. In his written account of his time in the West, Ames neglected to mention where he and Benson hosteled, but chances are pretty good they found accommodations at the Rio Grande Hotel, standing majestically on the west side of Main Street. For three days, they assembled their outfit, made inquiries about the Organs to the local populace, met botanist Wooton, and braced themselves to ascend into the mountains.

St. Genevieve’s Church, the corazon of the Catholic community in Las Cruces, as it appeared in 1891. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

“Main Street, 1891. Las Cruces, NM, Looking North from Convent.” With the photographer’s back to the Loretto Academy, one sees Martin Lohman’s residence on the east side of the road, while the Rio Grande Hotel stands on the opposite side further away. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

The Rio Grande Hotel, when she was majestic and grand. [Photograph courtesy of the Rio Grande Collection, New Mexico State University]

“Our start from Las Cruces was made on the morning of May 19,” Ames later wrote. “For days the Organ range had confronted us on the east, like a file of tall sentinels, and challenged us. To-day we accepted the challenge.” At 7:30 that morning, they rode out, Professor Wooton on horseback, and Ames and Benson in a buggy drawn by two horses. “Straight eastward by a wagon-trail we proceeded across the mesa. A gentle rise for twelve miles brought us to the base of the Organs. There they stood, straight and tall, their sharp needle-like points and spires piercing the blue, looking to be not more than one third of their true distance away. … Our road was fairly good, and we bowled merrily along, shouting to the jack-rabbits and cotton-tails which every minute scurried away on either side. … Every now and then the beautiful mountain quail, in pairs, would run swiftly out of the path, the peculiar head-plume of the male giving it a striking beauty.” [Second editor’s note: By “mountain quail,” Ames is referring to Gambel quail, an indigenous species known for its lovely and distinctive song. Right about this time of the year, we see them shortly after dawn and as dusk settles when a male and female, especially if they are new parents, are out and about with their young ones in search of sustenance. The male often perches on a high point, whether a creosote bush, a desert willow, or a roof top, to keep an eye out on things. Meanwhile, the female and her little ones scurry about in the brush in search of something to eat. Through it all, the male and the female talk to each other in a series of songs, just to let the other know that all is right and well. That’s rather humane, from a quail’s perspective, I suppose. People can learn a lot from quail, I know.]

Throughout the forenoon, as the small party crossed the mesa, Ames noted the diversity of bird and plant species, but he was struck by the lack of animal life and the land’s silence. “But the vegetable world presented much that was interesting,” he penned, “and many a specimen found its way into Professor Wooton’s botanical case. Often the graceful rider would, in true ‘plains’ fashion, stoop, and without dismounting pluck from the earth some low flower or grass.” While the botanist intermittently gathered specimens, they drew ever nearer to the mountains. Exactly where the explorers approached the Organs is unclear, but based on Ames’ description, one can reasonably conclude the site resembles Bar and Soledad Canyons. “We passed up the dry bed of an arroyo, or gully, to the foot of a great, vertical uplifted sheet of rock, precisely similar to those formations which are so well known to visitors to the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs. Here were a ranchman’s hut and an artificial reservoir of water.” As an aside, in recent years, road improvements have been made at the trail head leading into Bar and Soledad Canyons; from a much earlier day, there stands a water tank for livestock and a windmill, but those features may not have been there in 1891. However, at that exact point an arroyo meanders from the mountains’ western slope, and uphill into Bar Canyon closer to the Organs that wash cuts in front of the ruins of a homestead. This stacked-stone cabin offers silent testimony to the isolation some settlers endured in the closing years of the Nineteenth Century as they mined for precious metals in the Organ Mountains or raised cattle in the upcountry meadows. These ruins I have examined during hikes in Bar Canyon, and they show competent skill in building; if indeed this was the cabin the gentlemen passed by in May of 1891, then they saw a welcoming shelter flanked by the skyward uplift of granite.

The trailhead leading into Bar and Soledad Canyons in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Perhaps the mountaineers passed this point and trekked for the point of uplift on the extreme right edge.

As the three men prepared to climb, they “tethered the horses to some brush, near the piles of glittering ore, and improvising alpenstocks from the stiff and dried blossom-stems of the century plant,” as Ames dramatically related, “we attacked the mountain.” Unexpectedly, dark clouds began appearing from the west, and Ames surmised that rain would begin falling soon and probably while they were in the mountains. The climbers remained undaunted. “Up we toiled over a spur of one of the high peaks, picking our way around and over the spiny enemies before referred to,” he wrote, “now and then stopping to take a look at the widening landscape on the west, and to speculate as to the chance of rain. But the serrated peaks above were still in the blue, and mocking us; and on we went.” With the clouds gathering and the climbers cautiously seeking a path upward, Benson became separated from Ames and Professor Wooton and remained so for several hours; his absence was doubly unnerving because he carried with him their only canteen of water. Nor did the duo remain together, either. With Ames in the lead and uncertain of Benson’s whereabouts, Professor Wooton “tarried now and then to secure some coveted flower or plant new to him,” and his slowness of pace compelled Ames to press on but remaining within ear-shot. “Down into a kind of gully, then up, up, we went, through the thickest of thickets, and every step requiring the greatest care on account of cactus and yucca spines. No amount of care availed to prevent many a savage home-thrust. Huge bowlders obstructed the way. In and out and over and among them we crawled and scrambled, oftentimes for some distance crawling flat on the earth or over the tops of the scrub. Most Appalachians know well what good, thick, stubborn ‘spruce scrub’ is, as it covers the northern shoulders and spars of some of our New Hampshire and Maine mountains.” In addition to the rugged natural beauty Ames was enjoying, he was, however, fretful of an encounter with centipedes, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, or any other poisonous inhabitant of the rocky crags, but on he and Wooton climbed.

A Momentary Interlude: while writing this short piece, on several occasions I’ve regarded the west face of the Organ Mountains from our backyard or while out on a walk through our neighborhood to consider exactly where the mountaineers ascended. Undoubtedly, the appearance of the Organs one hundred and thirty-one years ago hardly differs from the view of the present day; after all, in geological time, what is a paltry century to a mountain range? But I look, and I ponder. I wonder how similar or how different are my own excursions into the Organ Mountains from the first known ascent into their mysterious creases and heights. Quien sabe?

While in the Organ Mountains, Ames, Benson, and Wooton easily gazed toward the western horizon from on high among the hardy flora and the old rocks.

Now, back to May of 1891. On they climbed. With Benson’s whereabouts still unknown, Ames and Wooton continued upward. “The situation was not without peril,” Ames acknowledged, but “[s]till, I knew I was very, very near to the summit, and I kept on; at last I knew I was at the very top of the ridge”[my emphasis]. With a nod to the Muse upon attaining that height, Ames triumphantly declared, “The wind whirled the fog up from the other side, and hurled it in my face, and shrieked at me for coming there, and yelled to me that I should not see one glimpse of the vast prospect beyond. I shouted my cheerful defiance, and then hastily crept down on my own side of the mountain, glad that I could be pretty sure of the right slope, and knowing the terrible peril of the least blundering in this respect.” Rain was falling steadily as Ames and Wooton scaled down the western slope, and en route they finally regained Benson. Their good fortune endured a punch when they discovered that they had lost their way and an enormous crag blocked their path. The mountaineers, short on water late in the day with a storm menacing their every move, feared they would have to tough it out and stay the night in the wilderness. They conferred and decided to find the way to their horses and buggy. Downward they went. The rain storm began moving away and “with the peaks above us now all clear and standing mockingly out against the blue,” the wayfarers soaked in “a wonderful view of western New Mexico and Arizona and northern Mexico beneath and beyond us.” Fatigued, thirsty, and hungry, “[w]e clambered down, getting many a stab from the yucca spears, which we had now hardly strength enough to avoid, and finally, rejoining Mr. Benson, we reached our horses and rode down to the carriage by the little ranch in the valley, and were soon bowling rapidly home across the mesa to Las Cruces.” Later, Ames informed his Appalachian readers that the townspeople in Las Cruces insisted that a climb into the mountains would require at least two days, so he must have enjoyed considerable satisfaction accomplishing the feat of ascending into the Organ Mountains in only one day.

Six months after his excursion into the Organ Mountains, Ames wrote Professor Wooton from Boston to ask for his assistance with a number of questions about the mountains. While Ames’ letter was not published, Wooton’s response of November 28, 1891, was, and one can surmise that Ames sought affirmation to support his assertion that the Organs were largely inaccessible to bolster his claim of an unrivaled extraordinary feat. After all, upon the party’s return to Las Cruces late in the day of May 19, Ames described the occasion vividly. “The next day,—ah, that next day! Well, we did not enter for any foot-races, nor attempt to win the prize in climbing a greased pole; but though our joints were stiff and our muscles sore, I for one, as I looked at the great organ-pipes piercing the eastern sky and tried to copy their profile on paper, was glad that I had stood on their highest ridge and proved that they could be ascended, and in one day, from Las Cruces.” Ames and his two companions certainly achieved a remarkable accomplishment in the spring of 1891, and they accomplished something no Anglo-Saxon was known to have done before them; perhaps in the unwritten chronicles of the earlier inhabitants of this stretch of the Rio Grande Valley, a comparable feat had long already been achieved. Quien sabe? But in his written account months after the climb, Ames tipped his hand about what he and his compadres actually accomplished. “With my present knowledge,” he noted about the climb, “it could be done with certainty and comparative ease; but I firmly believe that the ascent is hardly possible save in the place where I accomplished it, and I think the very summits are quite unattainable, for they are sharp and steep shafts of stone, which afford no foothold whatever. The peak to our left as we climbed reminded me constantly of the Aiguille du Midi, in the Alps, as one sees it from the hotel at Montanvert or the Mer de Glace.”

From my perspective, a close reading of Ames’ account and a bit of first-hand knowledge of the Organ Mountains, something his readers and fellow Appalachian members would not have had, is sufficient to simultaneously appreciate his ascent into the mountains while also recognizing the extent of his accomplishment. Mind you, I am fascinated and intrigued by Ames’ story of his time in Arid America, and I’m delighted that he had the gumption to journey to the Territory of New Mexico despite the distances and hardships to attempt a difficult task. Nonetheless, with a wink and a nod to The Who in 1971, Ames doesn’t fool me; I see what he was trying to do. With a subtle wordplay twist, Ames pulled a fast one on his New England readers with his use of “ridge” and “summit” in a manner to bluff the distinction between them. [Third editor’s note: This type of distinction is woven into the narratives Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon (1932) and The Dangerous Summer (1960). In this case, the distinction between implied and real danger to the matadors in the corridas in España, an overarching notion that figures centrally in many of Hemingway’s works.] No doubt about it but that Ames reached one of the high ridges, but he admitted that the “very summits are quite unattainable.” More than likely, the peak to his left during the ascent (that is, to the north) was either Razorback, Wildcat, the peak named in honor of the plant species Vaccinium erythrocarpus (keep your sophomoric snickers to yourself), Lost Peak, or The Wedge. So, yes, he demonstrated that in one day an excursion from Las Cruces and into the mountains to a high ridgetop and back to town was possible, but perhaps he recognized that a successful ascent to the highest point of the Organ Mountains could not be done in one day. “Poo-tee-weet,” chirps the songbird to accompany Billy Pilgrim’s “So it goes” in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade (1969).

But don’t misconstrue my appreciation of the arduous day the three climbers endured on that spring day so many years ago. Rather, I reiterate that in the grand design these three intrepid adventurers added to the incessant accumulation of knowledge about Earth in an age defined by exploration and the National Geographic Society. Lest we forget what occurred on May 19, 1891, in the Organ Mountains in the Territory of New Mexico: three men stood on a high point on a stony uplift and later wrote about it, and Professor Wooton collected and later named and cataloged several previously unknown species of Chihuahuan Desert flora. Both actions are hugely significant; their additions to the overall knowledge of this corner of the world deserve recognition and thanks, and I, for one, am pleased to have discovered Ames’ narrative. But moreover, my sense of delight of reading his story amplifies greatly because I happened to become aware of his words on Thursday, May 19, 2022, exactly one hundred and thirty-one years to the day after the events foretold. Not too shabby, eh?

A solitary sentinel in Bar Canyon on March 18, 2019.

Note Bene: Over the past two weeks as I’ve worked a bit now and again on this piece, my references to Hemingway are occasionally reflexive, but I would be remiss if I neglected to note that on this day one hundred and four years ago, young Ernest arrived in Paris with a group of Red Cross volunteers en route to northern Italy where he had a rendezvous with Destiny.

Nature’s Wonders on a Friday Afternoon

New Mexico: Blue sky, white grey mountains, wispy clouds, greenish desert floor.

Ten weeks ago today, upon leaving the office, I stopped by the house long enough to pick up my camera bag and drive out on Dripping Springs Road and its vicinity to look at the west side of the Organ Mountains through several good lenses. A sense of urgency pushed me onward, because beauty in the Chihuahuan Desert changes constantly and lasts far too briefly. The night before, on February 3, a real cold front for our corner of New Mexico crept in on little cat’s paws, as the poem says, and dusted the upper reaches of the Organs with just enough snow to remind us of Mother Nature’s bulldog tenacity to care for Earth. In miniature, the peaks of the Organs could have graced a wedding banquet table or a baker’s display case with their powdery white appearance, but in truth the mighty geological uplift was nurturing its oaks, pinons, and pines with the slow absorption of traces of icy water. The flora residing in the higher reaches of this rocky spine exudes toughness, but even the hardiest of plants and trees need a cool drink of water now and again. In the darkness of the hours before, their wish was granted.

I motored over to a spot of ground stewarded by the Bureau of Land Management and parked at the toe of an enormous geological pimple. Little sounds stirred. It was mostly quiet but for some dude in his car nearby. Admittedly, he was quiet, too, and perhaps wanting to be alone with his thoughts. Quien sabe? Figuring so, I walked about in search of right and honorable vantage points to snap a picture or two of the mountains. All about me stood clusters of the great indicator plant known as creosote, sometimes called greasewood, and a true denizen of the Chihuahuan frontier. I aimed the camera’s lens toward the mountains to include the desert floor and its hardy squatter dotting the landscape, and with the snow in the crevices and on the peaks surmounted by a blanket of clouds, I suspected at least a few of the views would be captured on film sufficient to show someone without discrediting the beautiful views. I’ll trust others to judge for themselves whether memorable scenes were recorded or not.

Moving on. Today is April 15, 2022, and tragedy on the level of the Ides of March has beleaguered this day throughout history. This spot on the calendar is notorious, having claimed President Lincoln in 1865, the Titanic in 1912, and the Cubs on most opening days of the major league season, but on this particular iteration of mid-April, I perused a batch of digitized negatives of the film I shot exactly two-and-a-half months ago.

My composition acumen has rusted somewhat since high school days, but I’m re-teaching myself the art of photography. Armed with a Canon A-1 that’s about as old as I am and rolls of outdated Konica film, I’m rediscovering the things I knew as a kid whose big dreams envisioned becoming the Peter Jennings of photojournalism. Well, maybe I better tone it down a bit, because that bar’s not exactly what I’m trying to achieve, but I remain a student to the art and am fortunate to live amongst a great canvas of beauty to endeavor to honor its lovely features in a humane, artistic way. Andele pues! Quien soy yo? Decide for yourself in this brief but (hopefully) worthwhile gallery of the place I refer to as my backyard. ¡Hasta la revolución!

With respect to the Monkey Wrench Gang, I present the Organ Mountains.

Contemplating the Right and Honorable Bishop Cap on a Hellish Day

Later in the afternoon, after the cool down back home, the moment of reflection required several consecutive spins of “Wrapped” by Bruce Robison. An incredible album released in 1998 that features Bruce and his brother Charlie, as well as a cast of incredible musicians and songwriters such as Kelly Willis, Lloyd Maines, Rich Brotherton, Mark Patterson, Jim Lauderdale, and Martin Muse, “Wrapped” proclaims oh so succinctly the timeless Texas Hill Country sound. With the Robison boys hailing from Bandera, Texas, their musical roots spread deeply in that creative soil. Music played loudly on the heels of an excursion into the many intriguing corners of the Chihuahuan Desert decompresses my thoughts and helps me make some sense of what I have just seen.

Towering above the creosote and the desert floor, Bishop Cap stands vigilant on the south end of the Organ Mountains, peering south toward the Franklin Mountains.

Today I made a memory. Nada mas, pues, para mi, es muy importante. After calling the work week a done deal, our eleven-year-old son accompanied me on a short drive south of Las Cruces to have a look around at an interesting stretch of the Organ Mountains. Short of the Texas line by about three or four miles, the southern end of the Organs disappears under the earth to create the Anthony Gap, that sort of proverbial feature in many Westerns where the good guys head off the bad guys just as lampooned in “Blazing Saddles,” and although the gap is relatively wide, some short distance to the south the uplift begins anew in a mighty fashion that bears the name of the Franklin Mountains.

The Franklins, like their nearby, northern neighbors run along a north-south axis, and curiously Nineteenth Century U.S. military cartographers portrayed the Organs and the Franklins as one continuous range rather than two. But it ain’t so. Tectonics and ancient geology have had their say, despite what Man thinks. Yet those great elemental forces seldom daunt poetic souls. Case in point: if you stand in the middle of Anthony Gap facing to the east—the source of wisdom—and extend your arms in the manner of the lower attitude Leonardo di Vinci articulated in his classic study of proportion, your fingertips would point directly toward two fancifully named geological features. Down the view-line of your right arm rises North Anthony’s Nose, a prominent point demarcating the northern edge of the Franklin Mountains, and when your good eyes gaze along your left arm in the opposite direction your peepers perceive a conical uplift known as Bishop Cap. To your back, that is, to the west, about five miles, courses ye olde Interstate 25 with its many wayfarers zipping by at breakneck speed thoroughly oblivious to the natural beauty surrounding them and ignoring Ferris Bueller’s advice. But there they are, North Anthony’s Nose and Bishop Cap keeping an eye on one another as they’ve done for something like 30 million years … and I doubt either one’s gonna blink anytime soon, as it must be a matter of pride between those two. C’est la guerre, que no?

With a rocky road wending to the east and Bishop Cap on the extreme right. . .

But on this Friday afternoon on the twenty-sixth day of June of the present year, I enjoyed the good honor to spend some quality time with my son out on a little patch of the desert. The temperature was to my liking, pulsing back and forth between 105º F and 106º F, a sparse range that will keep you honest, and skies mostly cloudless and elegantly blue, but my little guy thought otherwise. The desert’s charm didn’t sit with him too strongly despite the enormity of the view before our collective eight eyes. Maybe it was those dang flies that found us and brought great annoyance, or perhaps it was the heat, or it could have been the solitary standing among the ancients that tends to unsettle a soul unaccustomed to such vistas, but at any rate our visit stretched across a brief span of time, yet before we retraced our steps over the narrow, rock-strewn road to the smooth hard-surface leading back to town, we looked around to take it all in. TC noticed two spent 12-gauge shell casings just off the road in the creosote. Neither must have been soaking up the sun there for too terribly long, as both the red plastic and the brass caps showed little signs of weathering. Here and there were some tell-tale signs of off road beer-drinking excursions, but nothing major. So we looked at the dwarf forest of creosote and the lonely hills and talked about the geology of long time and snapped a few pictures to freeze a moment that he and I will talk about some years later and then we hit the road. Well, that’s an inaccurate description. We traveled down the road at a rate that never exceeded seven miles an hour. We were only about a mile from the graded, county road, but for that initial stretch I was cautious not to bottom out the JEB I was driving, because Corollas tend to have low clearance, and there were plenty of rocks that would have loved to rip out its undercarriage. But without damaging the property or pride of Toyota manufacturers, Mr. TC and I successfully made it back to Las Cruces in good shape, a bit worn down by the sun’s heat but overall alright.

Summer in the Chihuahuan Desert seldom isn’t hotter’n a two dollar pistol, a climate unsuited and uncomfortable for many, which is one of the reasons I have embraced it so well. Out on the range, though, we endured a momentary blue northern; I’ll be damned but if an arctic blast didn’t creep in for a snap and plummet the temperature to a chilly 103º F. To add to our difficulties, as we were driving in and later when we were heading out, with the windows down of course, a bunch of cousins to the common house fly swarmed us. I don’t know if the salt on our forearms from the perspiration drew them or whether they represented some sort of welcoming vanguard to the southern end of the Organ Mountains can only be conjectured, but there we were, looking at the Earth’s shape-shifting from a time before human reckoning. From where we stood by the side of the road, to our right on a southerly angle, rose the peak that upon observation does resemble a liturgical mitre, while to the north a geological blemish wrought by faulting and folding some many, many years ago exposes a three hundred foot tall outcropping known as Peña Blanca. As a sidebar, suffice it to say that the east side of that squat formation features a few caves, and in them archaeologists have found corncobs and bones that dated to the Mogollon culture epoch, which indicates that humans have lived in this territory for many thousands of years.

An incredibly significant outcropping. . . .

I drove out to this spot while the sun was almost directly overhead, at the beginning of summer in the Chihuahuan Desert, on a day that most reasonable people would seek the comfort and shelter of an air-conditioned, darkened room, and I’m beyond proud that TC wanted to accompany me. Despite the temperature and the bugs, those few minutes standing among the creosote while gazing at the majestic uplifts in the scorching, brilliant sunlight are minutes I will long cherish and appreciate. This land may be tough, no doubt about it, but to stand within it and to appreciate it for what it is, well, those moments do more good for my soul than spending any amount of time drinking at the poison well that is social media. I write about this desolate, inviting land to replenish what the daily grid and all its meanness seeks to take from me. In the same spirit as the great Chris Wall, who’d “rather be a fence post in Texas / than be the King of Tennessee,” I’m very comfortable in anonymity, writing what I need to write, and seeking peace that can only be found outdoors and not on-line. Captain Buffett titled one of his songs “Why the Things We Do,” which appears on the 1989 Off to the See the Lizard album, a record highly esteemed by Darren Elliott of Amarillo, Texas, and rightfully so, and he wrote, “In the driftwood house you learn how to dream / Truth is stranger than fishin’ it seems.” Jimmy’s on to something there, man. He’s on to something good.

Upon spending some time yesterday evening and throughout a good part of this day trying to write and think in between songs by Bruce Robison, Butch Hancock, the Tragically Hip, Toni Price, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and others, I’m reminded of the question put to me about the music I select for inspiration during long drives through Arid America. After all, I reference songs, musicians, and albums often, but on his point I’ll have to return to the Son of a Son of a Sailor, who, in 1978 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta chimed in on a request shouted from the audience: “I know that one! We’ll get to it. We’ve got about nine million albums and as many songs, but we’ll get to it!” So I’ll address my own musical question in due time, but for the moment I dedicate these words and their spirit therein to a fellow who was nowhere near Georgia on that night the Coral Reefers were on stage. So, to the great Dr. Leland Turner, better known as Lelando de Vaca, who, by his own account, is the preeminent authority on cattle in the Trans-Pecos and Australia, your compadres ranging from Lubbock to San Angelo to Las Cruces wish you all the best on your birthday! Cat dadddddddddy!!!

Looking back to the east while crawling along to the west. . .

No, Really, Snow Falls in the Chihuahuan Desert

In the last two months of 2019 and in the first two months of 2020, snow fell on parts of the Chihuahuan Desert between Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Alpine, Texas. I was fortunate to see a bit of it during drives through this stretch of the terrain, and as I’m bad to do, I take heed of Butch Hancock’s advice and carry a camera with me to record a moment in time lest it be forgotten. Quite right, it’s easy enough – they call ‘em smart phones, but I aspire to digitize 35mm negatives and prints to add a bit to the visual story as captured on film over time. At the moment, this proffered Whitman’s Sampler of views along the road are dated from November 7, 2019, while en route to Alpine to attend the Center for Big Bend Studies conference, and from March 4, 2020, during a drive to Ysleta del Sur near El Paso. So, to honor a request from Fort Smith, Arkansas, the first nine photographs were snapped during the November drive to Alpine, while the remaining fourteen pictures depict an early March snow in the borderlands. Enjoy these goodies; more’s on the way.

Heavy clouds over the Organ Mountains and Bishop’s Cap on the south (toward the right edge of the photograph)
Looking north into the Organ Mountains from east of Vado, New Mexico
An unreal sky over the Franklin Mountains north of Vado, New Mexico
As if the clouds are emerging from the Franklins
A windshield view of the Quitman Mountains in Hudspeth County
A mile above sea-level, snow falls in the Quitmans
With the toe of the Quitmans on the right and Interstate 10 winding through the mountains, clouds blanket Sierra Blanca
Gray road below, gray sky above, just south of Van Horn on Highway 90
A view to the west toward the Eagle Mountains a few short miles below Van Horn

To provide a bit of perspective, the massive uplift that forms the Franklin Mountains features eighteen peaks and ridges at least a mile above sea level, but only two of them, North Franklin Mountain and Anthony’s Nose, rank in the top fifty of the tallest peaks in Texas – another instance to quote Linda Ellerbee: “So it goes.”

Snow from the night before remains visible from Trans-Mountain Road, driving east on March 4, 2020
A mile high in El Paso on damp asphalt, regarding the clouds clinging to the Franklins
Fighting off the sun’s intensity on the upper slopes
Long time has created a visually arresting saddle in the Franklins
Far to the east, the Hueco Mountains in Hudspeth County reveal just a touch of snow in the higher elevations
On the road back, looking west toward the Franklins
Outside the El Paso Museum of Archaeology: a good view
And with no snow in sight, the poppies begin to reappear, soon to cover the east slope of the Franklins with a yellow-gold blanket
Another ephemeral view into the highlands before the melt
Along the walking path outside the Museum of Archaeology are signs that warn visitors to remain on the trail; once this land was an artillery range for Fort Bliss, and every now and again a shell long buried in the ground is disturbed and explodes, sometimes with tragic consequences.
Driving uphill into the Franklins and taking in the view
Standing on the side of the road, the radiant heat emanating off the rock face on the right juxtaposed nicely with the snow-covered hills above
Looking back toward the south with a pleasant view of the snow-covered Franklin Mountains
North of Vado, New Mexico, looking east to the Organ Mountains, with their high points white with snow and Bishop’s Cap, partially shadowed, dry and warm