November 6, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson
Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian
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 new moon.
“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, of course.”
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 absence.
“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.”