March Web Feature – Ronald L. Grimes
Once, when I thought my days were numbered, I had a peculiar desire. Before I die, I want to walk around New Mexico exactly on the boundary. Circumambulating my home state would be an inane ritual. Maybe I would put on whiteface and wear a clown suit.
I didn’t die and the ritual didn’t happen.
Years have passed. I now live in Canada, but I still tinker with the idea of making that pilgrimage. I’m aging. Will I need a cane? Is it possible to roll down the state line in a wheelchair? Is it possible to walk a straight line if barbed wire fences, arroyos, and mountains cut across my path? If I do a fool’s stroll, will I step off the edge of a canyon, be stricken by a rattlesnake, die of dehydration?
It’s now 2020. The pandemic has arrived. I can’t cross the international boundary, even though I have two passports, one American, the other Canadian. My only choice is to do a virtual pilgrimage sitting in a swivel chair, wondering whether sitting is the new smoking.
Google the New Mexico state map. On first glance it appears to be almost square. Look again, it’s rectangular, taller than wide, like a sheet of typing paper.
Most of New Mexico’s boundaries were drawn with a ruler. Straight lines across everything natural. Maybe the surveyors thought nothing was there. No Comanches no Apaches, no hunting grounds. No plant life, no animal life. My ancestors infested the land like a swarm on insects. We began to drill the earth full of
holes, suck out oil, plant genetically modified seed. Dig it up. Plow it under. Frame it with barbed wire. Suck water from Mama Earth’s belly and spray it over wheat, peanuts, corn, soybeans, jalapeños.
Zoom to the bottom of the map, slightly left of the middle. Here is the only New Mexico boundary that is not a straight line. That wiggly vertical bit is the Rio Grande River, the only natural boundary in the state. The Great River slices north to south through the middle of the state.
Circumambulating New Mexico would be like kinhin, walking meditation in Zen. Ask a Zen master its purpose, and she will say: walk, just walk. Walk for no reason, no purpose, none at all. The aim is to have no aim. But aims and intentions creep into consciousness: to say good-bye to
my home state, to outrun death, to the expose the silliness of straight-line borders, to prove I’m a man, to clown myself to death.
But let’s not get lost before beginning this Google-driven virtual journey. I’ll start in Texico, east of Clovis, where I grew up. In Santa Fe, Hispanics call this part of New Mexico “little Texas.”
Dad was hired one summer as a census taker. We go to Texico, which sits on the New Mexico side of the border. We are walking along the train tracks when Dad says, “On that side is Farwell, Texas. On this side is Texico, New Mexico.”
A testy kid, I walked down the middle of the tracks and tossed him a question, “Where am I now.”
He laughed, “No man’s land.”
To honor Dad, I’ll start on the train tracks that separate Texico from Farwell and go south down the middle of the tracks.
It’s not long before I have to follow a road rather than train tracks. Soon I cross the middle of a green crop circle—not a medicine wheel—but a water-guzzling sprinkler spraying crops. I ask the sprinkler, “How much of your moisture is evaporating into the dry air?” Standing at the center of the circle is the best place not to get wet.
Texas is to the left, and New Mexico, the right. Do ranches and farms stop at state lines? Can you plow or water on both sides of the NM/TX state line? New Mexico collects state income tax from farmers. Texas doesn’t have any taxes. They can thank oil for that.
The journey has just started. I’m a spry kid again and begin lilting a nonsense song: “Texas, taxes, Texas, taxes.” I begin to skip with an invisible rope to the tune.
When I was seventeen, I was a DJ for a radio station in Muleshoe, Texas. I had to play country and western music for early-rising farmers. I hated the music but got paid a pittance. I would need to add a slide guitar and harmonica to make my “Texas, Taxes” song worth turning off in west Texas.
Now we’re back on the road again, Highway 769. I love it when the roadbuilder follows the surveyor’s ruler lines. Easy walk.
Ah, there’s the Border Bar. I’ll stop for a drink, not too much. Gotta keep walking.
Just east of Hobbs I lose my road. It no longer coincides with the state line, the Yellow Brick Road to nowhere.
I’ll have to follow the dotted state line by divination. I wouldn’t use a GPS; it would violate the sanctity of my quixotic quest. But this is a virtual journey, so I can Google-zoom in and Google-zoom out.
South of Hobbs I pass through Nadine. That’s mom’s name. Maybe she borrowed her name from this town. Wouldn’t there be a family story?
Below Nadine I pass near Eunice. Hmm, what went on in this region—all these girl-named towns? Many other towns have old-boys-club names.
Eunice is not a place I’d like to inhabit. Near here is WIPP, the notorious Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s repository for nuclear waste. Its first shipment came in 1999. More shipments are supposed to follow for the next 20 or 30 years. Atomic wastes are shipped south from Colorado. Truckers pick up more atomic garbage in Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed, then haul radioactive waste farther south.
At first protesters imagined the pollutants would be dumped into Carlsbad Caverns, but that would kill the tourist trade. Instead, the government used a deep geological repository near Eunice. The site was guaranteed not to leak.
In 2014 drum #68,660 leaked, because Los Alamos packers used organic kitty litter instead of inorganic clay kitty litter. The organic litter is made of wheat, and its cellulose can burn. Radioactive isotopes of uranium,
americium, and plutonium began to escape. It cost 300 million dollars to clean up the mess.
The signs posted at WIPP are supposed to last 10,000 years. Linguists designed pictograms to scare away you and me or Martians (who could visit from Roswell), to scare anyone who might dig up the radiated waste.
Now I have a tough choice. The state line crosses through URENCO and, it seems, the middle of an open pit. What’s in it? What’s around it? Barbed wire? Razor wire? Cameras? Alarms? I have no choice but to deviate from the NM boundary. I have to walk in semi-circle around the place. Which side? New Mexico, of course. We’re the poor cousins of rich
Texas relatives. Texas is Egypt; New Mexico, holy land.
Suddenly, the ruler line turns left. I’ve hit the bottom of New Mexico. I head west toward El Paso, Texas.
I keep striding until I come to the Pecos River. Hard to swim in a straight line. I don’t get to improvise my path unless I have to; that’s the plan. So, I swim, dry, and peel off the mud. If I could swim north, I’d be near Carlsbad Caverns, said to be the largest known subterranean labyrinth in the world. It’s full of bat shit, marketed as “guano,” great fertilizer.
I keep walking the straight line until I approach the Guadalupe Mountains south of the Lonesome Ridge Wilderness Study Area. I am feeling lonesome—the pathetic fallacy—but there are trees and bushes ahead.
Once I hike through the mountains, I am back on flat land. Actually, it’s not flat, it’s full of arroyos and hills that feel like mountains when you climb out.
Don’t hike southern New Mexico in the summer, killer heat. I trudge westward, using Stateline Drive until I am north of El Paso. If I were to hike straight north, I’d hit the White Sands. At the north end is the Unholy Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was exploded.
The Atomic Heritage Foundation in Albuquerque now sells t-shirts displaying J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves at Trinity Site staring at the bomb, or is it the world? Either way, I hurry on, don’t want to celebrate this heritage.
Then I’m forced to make a choice at Highway 213. The state line is dotted, but there is no road, so I can cut straight across or take an alternate road to the north or the south. The southern way takes me thorough Ft. Bliss, a military reservation. Do I want to do that? Will I need a pass? A badge? A uniform? What if I’m a conscientious objector?
I take the northern route. As I pass through Anthony, Texas, I know the Rio Grande awaits. The Royal Road to Santa Fe follows the path of the Rio Grande northward. I am a New Mexican, an American, a Canadian. Can I swim both sides of the river, walk both sides of two borders?
Wait…that dotted line is not the Rio Grande. I was taught in school that the RioG was the boundary between Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico, but the dotted-line boundary runs west of the Great River. International boundaries are complicated. If I plunge into the Rio Grande and swim south, following the current, I’ll soon be in Mexico. Where exactly would I be in Mexico? Can I swim on both sides of the river? Can I walk on both banks without a drone or a rifle being pointed at me? Who would shoot me first—Americans or Mexicans? Would I be shot if I swam with a US passport between my teeth, with the eagles turned upward toward the drone camera?
Anyway, I’m not going that way. I’m on a fool’s errand. So, I dangle my feet in the muddy water, swim across, and keep heading west on the dotted line. I pass south of Columbus, New Mexico, where Pancho Villa raided, inspiring President Wilson to send General Pershing into Mexico to arrest the man. On the American side of the border Pancho was a bandit. On the other side, Señor Villa was a hero.
The weather is hot as hell. I can’t think in so much heat, so I guzzle water. Where do I get more? As I turn one more time south, then west, I see no roads, no tourists with water. At Antelope Wells I could turn south toward Las Barras in Mexico, but would I ever get there? I’d either dehydrate or be picked up for crossing the border without flashing my passport. Would anyone care? Probably not, so I risk walking for water.
I imagine an elderly goat herder who gives me water. “Thank you, gracias,” I say in Gringo Spanish.
I turn north up New Mexico’s western border. Arizona is on my left. To the right is the town of Lordsburg, which usually records New Mexico’s highest temperatures. In the movie Stagecoach the Ringo Kid (played by John Wayne) left Tonto, Arizona, headed for Lordsburg. At the end of the movie Ringo exits the town through Monument Valley, 430 miles north in Arizona. Makes as much geographical sense as a Google tour.
If you’re my age, you can’t read the name Tonto without thinking of the Lone Ranger’s native companion. Jay Silverheels played Tonto. He was not from Arizona, Texas, or New Mexico. He was not an Apache or Comanche but a Mohawk from Six Nations Reserve. That’s in Ontario, on the other Grand River. From here American readers are south of the border. When Ontarians say “going south” they mean, “going belly up, failing.”
As I ascend north on the New Mexico/Arizona border the screen becomes green. “Green grow the rushes, ho,” we sang as Boy Scouts lost in the Gila Wilderness outside of Silver City. Hiking the Gila Wilderness, we Scouts were halfway through the trek and ready to quit. Lay down and die. I didn’t die then, because I was too young. I won’t die now, because I’m too old for dying. There were no rushes in the Wilderness, but we did find a troop of Girls Scouts bathing in the Gila River. Good Christian Boy Scouts, we didn’t watch. Nope, nope, really didn’t. See no evil; do no evil.
The next day we Scouts marched into Silver City with no money so the police invited us to camp out in jail or on the courthouse lawn. We chose the lawn. It was green, and the sky was full of stars.
The Gila National Forest is coded green on the New Mexico side. On the Arizona side, the map is beige. Does the greenery stop at the state border? I doubt it, since up near highway 180, which crosses the Arizona-New Mexico boundary, there is a town called Alpine. Someone thought the elevation was high enough and trees tall enough to make you want to yodel.
West of beige is the San Carlos Reservation, Apache territory. Too far to walk. Off the beaten path. The thought of Apaches puts fear in the Gringo heart. Too many 1950s cowboy and Indian movies. But I’ve read Wisdom Sits in Places and Portraits of “The Whiteman” trying to counteract movie values with book learning. Sometimes the strategy of reading Keith Basso’s books works; sometimes not. A whiteman’s brain is hard to change. I’m halfway through the journey and ready to quit. I’m so damned tired, but I can hear those Apaches joking about me, laughing their asses off at whitey idiocy.
Day after day, I walk north until I am crossing the Zuni reservation. No signs mark it. Zunis probably have no interest in the dotted line that I am following. Should I walk here? Who to ask for permission? How should I walk here? Softly, on sacred land.
One year I was driving on I-40 to Zuni Shalako, a winter solstice ceremony. It snowed and I was trapped, had to wait for a snowplow. I arrived at Zuni an hour before dawn. I could still see the Shalakos. They were supernatural, even though Zunis know humans animate the creatures. Even for white unbelievers they are momentarily holy. The Zuni world-map is multidimensional; the whiteman’s map is flat, as if viewed by satellite from outer space.
I trudge on. It’s getting late. The sun is setting. I’m in dire need of a bed but sleeping in a motel would violate the spirit of this wonky virtual pilgrimage. So, I search for a wrecked car at the edge of Lupton, Arizona. I hope to find one without rats or rattlesnakes. But the spongey whiteboy body needs ice cream.
I trudge to Tee Pee Trading Post. The “Pee” triggers a memory. After World War II, Dad would drive the family from Clovis to San Diego on Route 66, now overshadowed by I-40. He would make me pee through a plug in the bottom of our Hudson’s back floor—either that or piss into the top of Mom’s Pepsi bottle and empty the salty yellow fluid through the hole. After a stone flew up through the Hudson hole, striking blood from my kid-sized prick, I became adept at bottle pissing.
As a kid I loved roadside curio shops. “Real Indian stuff, real Indian stuff,” I’d shout. As a man, I know it is made-in-China fake. Still, the boy in the old man needs ice cream and can’t resist trying on moccasins and pounding a tom-tom. I find ice cream at Tee Pee. Sugared up, I head for a field of wrecked cars hoping to find a Hudson Hornet. I remember that Dad won a mileage contest driving a Hornet in Farwell. We should have buried Dad in a Hudson. Besides his family and Jesus, he loved Hudsons most.
I didn’t find a Hudson—had to settle for a Ford pickup. The next morning I feel better—healed by ice cream and snake oil. Hearing a pair of coyotes, I arise early and a chew a stick of buffalo jerky bought from Tee Pee.
I’m a tough old goat, but my muscles ache and my knees wobble. If you’re old, do you have more time or less time on your hands? Life is short, but each day is interminable. To distract myself, I begin measuring time and distance.
It’s 29 miles from Lupton to the Navajo Nation headquarters at Window Rock. By car, the trip takes 33 minutes. By motorcycle, 15 minutes if the Navajo police don’t catch me. On foot, at an old man’s pace of 3 miles an hour, the walk would take 9 or 10 hours. I need time for food, pissing in the bushes, a mid-afternoon doze, time to send pictures to my wife and kids so they know I’m alive. So, 6 hours a day seems reasonable. That’s the best I can do, 18 miles a day. New Mexico’s boundary is around 1,500 miles, so this is a 3-4 month journey. If I die on the road, I will be a fool for many, but a hero for few. Better to become buzzard bait that die in an old folk’s home.
At Window Rock, I stare through the window in the rock. I stand by the statue of a Navajo Code Talker, pay homage to men whose language the Japanese could not decode in World War II. We whitefolk stole native land; natives saved our white asses. Not exactly a fair trade.
I sit and talk with a couple of old guys. They see my white beard and ask for toys from Santa Claus. They suggest that I cool off in the museum, stroll the library. When I come out, they are still there. They offer me a cigarette. I decline. I offer them a stick of jerky. They accept. As I begin to leave, they ask me what I’m doing. When I tell them, they are amazed at my stupidity. They bite their tongues to keep from saying what they think about the whiteman’s foolish ways. I hand them my card. It says Ronald L. Grimes, wandering fool, whiteman, old goat, Ph.D. They howl with laughter.
Fort Defiance was established in 1851 so the U.S. military could control Navajos. I walk past it. It is no longer a fort. Now it is called Tsehootsooi, “green place among the rocks.” We settlers don’t understand Diné any more than the Japanese did. For us monolinguals, all languages other than English are “code talk.”
I decide to head to Four Corners, where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet. If I do what limber tourists do, I can stretch and put a foot or hand in all four states. If I do what old-timey Mormons used to do, I could stand here and not be arrested for polygamy. If I’m in no-man’s land, which state’s laws apply?
Since I’m not a tourist or a polygamous Mormon, I’ll do an old-man spin, sit in the middle, and whizz on my bony ass through four states. I stop with my feet pointing east. I win on the gambler’s wheel. In front of me is eastern life, behind me is western sunset. I am facing the right direction for the resurrection. I’ll live to finish this pilgrimage and set out gleefully with Colorado on my left and New Mexico on my right.
I’m tempted to follow the road. The walking would be easier, even though the distance is greater. But I have to stay true to the basic principle of the journey: walk the dotted line, not the road. A hundred- and forty-five-mile walk, and I’ll have to swim four times.
I pass Dulce, NM, on the south. I could visit the headquarters of the Jicarilla Apache Nation or go there to gamble at the Wild Horse Casino, but I’ve already won once doing the gamble’s spin at Four Corners, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead. (I’m getting weary, making too many excuses.) I keep going until I pass Edith, CO, and discover another “side” of New Mexico. The Yellow Brick Road drops south, then east. A boring triumph.
I pass Raton, NM, and remember the most fantabulous burritos that I ate there. If I sneaked off the dotted line to get one, I couldn’t get up. I’d fall asleep, fart, and want more.
I hurry past Branson, CO. I could easily walk the 3/10 mile. But why go? Population 74. I’d scare the entire town. Could I go there and ship myself collect by UPS back to Clovis? Would the truck follow the Yellow Brick Road? Probably not.
I pass Wheeless, OK. My wife sends me a text asking, “Are your brains scrambled by the hot sun? Are your wheels falling off?” I could hike over to the Great Plains Bunkhouse, pull the axles and all my wheels would fall off. Then people at the Mexhoma Church could burn me, ship my ashes home, or bury on the lone prairie.
I walk south. Just north of Texline the surveyor’s ruler jogs right. The New Mexico border slips two miles into what looks like Oklahoma. What did the surveyor’s pencil bump into? What was it going around? A cow blocking a surveyor’s transit? A ranch? A Comanche who stood his ground? A forefather’s grave? Texline must be a sibling of Texico. They lie precisely on the state line. Maybe they are magical towns, superstructures lying liminally in the spiritual universe.
I am now passing through the llano estacado. I saw these words on a geographical map in junior high and asked my teacher what they meant. In a few days she brought a photocopy of a letter written by Coronado dated October 20, 1541. The letter said, “I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I travelled over them for more than 300 leagues…with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea…There was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”
The next day the teacher told our class that Coronado and the conquistadors were searching for cities of gold. She said New Mexico history is full of myth. When the conquistadors crossed the llano, they became so disoriented that they began driving stakes into the high, flat ground so they could find their way back out.
“Like Hansel, Gretel and the breadcrumbs?”
“Yes, just like that,” she said.
“Where is this plane?” we asked.
“You are standing on it.”
I arrive at Texico, barely alive, where the circumambulation began. The square is now circled. I’m proud, but Dad’s ghost sits on the train tracks mocking me, “I’m eating watermelon and listening to country music while you labored without pay for no good reason. You’re a fool, boy. You need practice. Come back and try it again.”