The Mysterious Mountain
The wind that had risen directly after sunset blew hard
down-canyon, filling the rocky bowl where camp was fixed with a sound
like rushing water, scouring the open fire pit, and sending red sparks
in sheets among the dry cacti and bushes. Between gusts, the coals in
the bottom of the pit burned dark red and purple, then brightened to
orange and yellow when the wind hit them. Piled nearly a foot deep,
they resembled the ruins of a destroyed city, burning with the
vengeful heat of a crematorium. Overhead, the stars remained obscured
by the brilliant firelight until you stepped away from the campfire
among the thornbush and cholla, while the night sky waited for a
"Is it possible humans actually are as malleable as the
social engineers believe?" I asked, returning to the fire after
briefly inspecting, through binoculars, the Pleiades. "I thought about
it all the way down the Front Range yesterday. O for an atom bomb!--as
Evelyn Waugh said. What kind of being other than a totally adaptable
one could live in Denver and call it home? Modern cities aren't just
not communities anymore, they aren't even cities; simply
conglomerations of realty machines designed for the purpose of
processing populations and money. Not even making the damn
stuff--just raking it in."
"People think they're just Heaven," Norma replied, holding her wine
glass appreciatively to the fire's glow. "So many malls to shop in,
all those ethnic restaurants to eat at. I think maybe you're showing
your age, Williamson."
Perhaps so. Only, I feel as young as I ever did; rather, it seems
to me the world, not I, that's aging rapidly--while growing
demographically younger every day. "Well, I hope that's all it is," I
said at last. "Because, if not-there is no God."
If you stick to reading about population increase and urban sprawl
in the newspapers and apply your imagination to what you've read, it's
possible to become much more depressed than is necessary to be (yet).
Taking the back roads east of Albuquerque I'd driven across open
country from Pueblo, Colorado, as far south as Alamogordo, New Mexico:
nothing but snow-covered mountains, the golden plains, and hundreds of
miles of rolling pinyon-juniper upland. Still, all signs-social,
demographic, environmental--point to catastrophe. Our only hope, Ed
Abbey believed. Having died thirteen years ago this March, he won't be
around to experience it, though. (Maybe <>I won't, either: possibly
an uplifting thought.)
One way or the other, we're camped here in the Guadalupe Mountains
of southeastern New Mexico to get away from abstractions and other
phantasmal worries: Norma escaping the city of Las Cruces (modernizing
at a geometrical rate of progression), me in search of Broke-Off
Mountain: a symmetrical limestone structure ruined forever when the
earth gave a casual shrug some tens of thousands of years ago, causing
the extreme southern end to break away at an angle of forty-five
degrees, its bit of green forest tilted toward the desert floor. While
living in Cruces myself, I'd noticed the phenomenon on descent into El
Paso Airport a hundred airmiles away and determined to explore it
before moving up to God's country again. Better late than
never--though the icy February wind coming off the Llanos Estocados
(the Staked Plains) over in Texas seemed plenty reason to have made it
later still. I hate wind, even worse than a horse does.
"Where's the tent?" Norma asked in a surprised voice.
"Off to your left over there, where the sparks won't find it."
"I'm looking, but I don't see anything.."
Old Jules Sandoz would have had his ironwood stick in hand.
Nowadays, men are expected to be more patient.
"It's there, Norma!"
Only it wasn't--just the two remaining stakes sunk firmly in the
ground where I'd raised it a couple of hours ago, before the wind got
up. It took the two of us a quarter of an hour to disengage the
three-man tent from the circle of thorn bushes fifty yards out that
had impeded its progress into the wilderness (still with the heavy
sleeping bags inside), collapse it, and drag the wadded nylon bundle
back to camp. Breathless from the struggle with the wind, the backs of
our hands bloodied by thorns, Norma and I exchanged significant looks.
"Let's do like the Boy Scouts and sleep in the truck tonight," I
suggested, as she reached the wine bottle from the lowered tailgate.
Navigating without a map, we'd planned to approach the mountains
from the north by a county road coming south from Hope: a windswept
desert hamlet, population about 30, lacking even a fulltime gas
station. You'd need hope to live in Hope, N.M., while no one with hope
would think of living there. But the single gravel road diverged into
a tree of right-angled branches like the platting-map of an unbuilt
city and so we turned back finally, mindful of our gas and water
supplies, to come round by Artesia and the chip-and-seal road into
Sitting Bull Falls, where hunters in camouflage--out for Barbary sheep
come to drink from the limestone tinajas in the canyons running
down from the forested plateau above--were camped.
The wind blew throughout the night, rocking the vehicle on its
springs, then died at a little past four in the morning when the
sudden silence wakened me into the pre-dawn dark. Norma cooked
breakfast over a fire of cholla sticks and we drank a pot of
coffee boiled on the coals, listening to the canyon wrens rehearse the
day from the feathered tops of the dry yucca stalks.
"Are we still looking for Broke-Off Mountain?" Norma asked.
"Sure. Why not?"
"I thought maybe you'd forgot about it overnight."
"It's been on my mind four years already, a symbol of something-I
don't know what. Why should I forget it now I'm here?"
"Why shouldn't you?" she wanted to know.
We drove up to El Paso Gap on the plateau and south across the
state line into Texas and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where a
lanky ranger in an official cap and coveralls was tending to two
horses in a paddock. When I asked him about Broke-Off Mountain, he
flung his arm out in a westerly direction.
"Take the Brush Mountain trail about three miles," the ranger said.
"You'll see it as you come across the top at the high place, bigger
than life ahead of you and--broke-off!" He laughed. "Kind of dramatic;
an interesting geological event."
The trail followed the drainage among groves of live oak for half a
mile before beginning climbout, around the tawny flanks of the
steep-sided sugarloaf hills. Alternately shedding and adding layers of
clothing, we made a forced march to the summit where I stood in a
light wind with the collar of my polypro jacket turned up around my
beard to survey 360 degrees of horizon, including Sierra Blanca to the
Northwest, Guadalupe Peak ( at 8749 feet the highest point in Texas)
southeast a few miles, the Cornudas Mountains thrusting like rusty
shovel-blades from the salt flats below, and the indistinct, nearly
invisible smudge that was the sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad
Juárez a hundred miles due west. Ahead at about the eleven-o'clock
position, a green rounded shoulder of the mountain--apparently an arm
of the ridge we were standing on--mostly concealed the raw frontal
rock from which a forward section might (or might not) have broken off
and fallen away to the desert below.
"If that isn't it, I don't know what else could be," I told Norma.
"But it doesn't resemble at all what I saw from the airplane."
Down at the station, the ranger was not around for further
questioning. We left the park, drove north by a gravel road along the
forested rim of the escarpment, and made camp in a clearing in the
pinyon-juniper forest, grown up with an impressive display of
tire-wrecking pancake-pear cactus. We hauled out the tent once more,
and once again-at eight-twenty-two sharp-the terrible wind arose,
gusting over forty miles an hour and covering camp and the spread gear
with a film of the finest wood ash. We slept in the truck again that
night, woke to find the water jugs frozen solid as rock, started a
fire to cook on, and finished by shoveling dirt over the coals and
driving to Dell City, Texas, fifteen hundred feet down and south fifty
miles across the barren creosote-bush desert for breakfast.
Dell City is an agricultural town of a thousand or so people in the
Dell Valley, flat as linoleum beneath the sheer ramparts of the
Guadalupe Mountains. Though we passed a Catholic mission at the
outskirts, most of the population was parked outside the First Baptist
Church across the street from Rosita's Café, the only establishment in
town serving at 11:30 on a Sunday morning. We entered by mistake
through the kitchen, where Rosita and her assistant were preparing a
large pot of menudo for the luncheon crowd that apparently was
expected, and went on to the restaurant, where four or five Mexican
laborers sat with their coats and hats on to finish their meal. "Hi,"
they told us in a friendly way, "hello;" "Buenas dias," I
answered them, before I could think. (It isn't kosher in the Southwest
to speak Spanish to Mexican-Americans.)
We ordered chiles rellenos and chile verde con carne
and sat drinking coffee, waiting for the meal to be served while the
Mexicans paid up and left and two tall young Anglos in Stetson hats
and Carhart jackets entered and stood briefly with their backs to the
ancient gas stove burning with a clear blue flame against the wall. In
the soft-spoken, strangely gentle accents of West Texan speech, they
asked where we were from and apologized to us for the cold weather
before ordering menudo and "el té" from the waitress, who
spoke hardly any English. I thought to ask the taller of the two if he
were familiar with Broke-Off Mountain but he answered, after
considering for a moment, that he'd never heard of it. "Add something
that's eighty-proof to your water supply tonight," he added, touching
the brim of his clay-colored hat to Norma.
Driving by Route 62-180 around the southernmost end of the
Guadalupe Mountains, I searched in vain for a glimpse of what
plausibly could be the mysterious mountain I had glimpsed so often
from the air. We crossed the salt flats, climbed up the escarpment
beneath Guadalupe Peak, followed the highway past the entrance to
Carlsbad Caverns, and returned to Sitting Bull Falls by way of the
Dark Canyon county road. Seeking protection from the wind, we
appropriated a huge campfire ring sheltered by a deep overhang of rock
beneath the limestone wall where last year's dry yucca poles and the
flat green cactus paddles reflected the golden light of the sun from
terraced gardens rising against the evening sky. Norma scoured the
drainage for wood, while I climbed up to the ledge above camp and
threw down what desert driftwood I managed to scavenge there. When we
had a fair-sized pile to hand, we built a big fire and opened the last
bottle of red wine from the camp box.
"This has been nice," Norma said. "I needed so badly to get away
from the city and into the desert again."
"Never say I didn't warn you about Las Cruces," I told her.
"Las Cruces isn't a bad place to visit. But this could never be the
country of my heart. Wyoming is."
"Mine is Broke-Off Mountain," I said. "Assuming it actually exists,
For supper there was beef stew rolled in tortillas, dried fruit,
and chocolate bars. We sat afterward with the coffee pot set firmly in
a foundation of redhot coals, drinking the rest of the wine and
watching shooting stars from under the overhang, and I wished I'd
brought a cigar to smoke on our last night in the Guadalupe Mountains.
The cholla and cedar sticks burned fast, crumbling to a
semblance of the ruined city and recalling a view of London I'd had
years before, glimpsed at night from a Paris-bound flight beneath a
smoldering layer of low cloud: the Strand, Picadilly, and Oxford
Street outlined in lights, the Thames revealed as a black serpentine
"I don't want to go back to journalism, the newspapers, and news,"
I told Norma; "to amnesty and Vicente Fox, George Bush and Saddam
Hussein, Afghanistan and the World Trade Center, Palestine and Israel,
Enron and the stockmarket, global warming and demographic catastrophe,
mass migration, the European Union, and the Death of the West.
Especially, I don't want to go back there through Denver, Colorado."
"I just have the feeling we're in the end times, now," she said.
"Everything passing away-except maybe.this."
Gazing down at the circle of struggling light at my feet, I
thought: What would you do if you had the power to end the world
right now, put it out of its misery before things deteriorate further
still? A temptation for certain, irresistible possibly. In
particular for a man in his fifties with a diminished future to look
forward to, open perhaps to the perverse notion of everything going
with with him when he goes. But the world belongs to God Who created
it, and Who will end-or, rather, recreate-it in His own good time.
"Pass me the water can, would you please?" I asked Norma. "I want
to douse the fire, hard, before we turn in tonight."