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Hillerman on the Southwest

  Tony Hillerman and his brother Barney, a photographer, collaborated on the book Hillerman Country, from which this essay is taken. In it, Hillerman recounts his "storeroom of places I can visit without leaving my chair."
photograph of sunset
House and sunset on the Colorado plateau. Photo courtesty of Barney Hillerman.
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Remembered Places
Text by Tony Hillerman
Photographs by Barney Hillerman

It seems strange but it's true, as Conrad Richter once told us, that something as inanimate as a place can inspire love. Richter made that statement in an essay written about thirty years ago, commenting on the effect of the Plain of San Agustin in central New Mexico.

"The beauty, the mystery, the immensity of that grassland got into my blood," Richter wrote. It inspired The Sea of Grass, which brought to him the Pulitzer Prize and to us one of the greatest novels in which landscape is as important as character.

photograph of wind-swept plant
Blue grama blades trace the work of shifting winds. Photo courtesty of Barney Hillerman.
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Other writers have put it in other ways. D.H. Lawrence said the view from his ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Taos "changed me forever," liberating him from modern civilization. "The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I attended." Haniel Long described this odd love affair more specifically — remembering a tiny village in the Santa Fe River canyon. "I see it all again; and yet, can these houses be so red? And the dogs the children play with, can they be so white? And the Cerrillos hills seen through an arroyo leading skyward, can they be so blue? And when one goes to it between the walls of blue rock, one may really not be going to it at all, but rather dreaming a dream he has dreamt before. Surely no one can be sure he has visited Cienega; people say to themselves, do they not: 'Was it a vision; or have I, some time or other, seen dusk in a valley like this?'"

In his Man Made of Words, N. Scott Momaday, another Pulitzer-winning novelist whose works are rich with love of landscape, tells us that everyone should collect the treasures of such a place in memory. "He ought to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures that are there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of dawn and dusk."

Most of us, I think, follow Momaday's advice. I have my own storeroom of such places — places I can visit without leaving my chair. In my case, they tend to be seasonal. White Sands National Monument, for example, has a special appeal for me in the winter. I remember it as I first saw it — a February night in 1953. I had driven down the Tularosa Basin, with the snowcapped Sacramentos looming to the east, and to the west mile after mile of tumbled lava — the outpouring of volcanic vents north of the village of Carrizozo. The map shows three communities in the fifty-five miles between Carrizozo and Alamogordo, the first being Oscuro. I'd stop there and take a break. But Oscuro proved to be an unoccupied house beside the railroad track. I would stop, instead, at Three Rivers. But Three Rivers was also a single building, a service station closed for the day. A sign there pointed up a dirt road toward a recreational area. I followed it. It led eastward to what has now been declared the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreational Site. Even before official federal recognition it was an impressive place — an upthrust of magma-formed grassy ridges, topped with great black boulders. The highest ridge provides a superb lookout spot for anyone wanting a broad view of the basin. Stone Age hunters had used it as a campsite for their hunts. While waiting for game they chipped into the basalt hundreds of shapes — representations of reptiles, animals, spirits, and men in styles that suggest Klee and Picasso, geometric forms, symbols, even what seem to be pure abstractions. As I remember, it was on this ridge that I first noticed White Sands.

Far to the southeast between me and the Organ Mountains was a long, white line shimmering in the late afternoon sun.

Highway 70 intersects this whiteness on its way to the mountain pass between Alamogordo and Las Cruces. The National Park Service visitors' center beside the highway was unmanned on this winter evening. Past it, the access road leads through a graywhite saltbush flat. Then the dunes rise around you. Plants endure at the edges, iodine bush, creosote, saltbush, skunkbush sumac, soaptree yucca, rubber pennyroyal — perennials and grasses of heroic tolerance for drought and toxic chemicals. But within a few hundred yards the plants are gone. You are surrounded by a landscape of undulating white. All around you are great dunes, some as high as three-story buildings, their southwest slopes gradual and carved by the wind, their northwest faces smooth and soft. There is nothing quite like it elsewhere on planet Earth.

White Sands is not sand at all, not that tawny mixture of pulverized stone and silicate which forms the usual desert dune. It is gypsum, almost pure, which has been leaching for the past million years out of the Organ Mountains and draining into what geologists call Lake Lucero. The "lake" proper is a ten-mile-long playa that collects runoff and seepage from the mountains. The desert sun burns away the moisture, leaving a layer of deposited gypsum crystals. The prevailing southwesterly wind cuts into the back of these dunes, pushing dislodged crvstals up to the crest, where they tumble down. Thus the dune moves with inexorable slowness, burying all before it. For something like a million years this combination of rain, sun, and wind has moved a sheet of gypsum crystals toward the north and west, forming a white desert that now covers more than 270 square miles.

The moon was about three-quarters full that night, rising early over the Sacramentos, its light reflecting off the snow pack on distant Sierra Blanca and from the glittering gypsum. Away from the access road, you can climb the hard side of a dune to its crest and see no sign that the planet is inhabited. Alamogordo and the headquarters buildings of the missile research center that shoots its rockets down the desert range are too far away to be visible. The silence is absolute, the world around you as dead as the gypsum below your feet, the nearest human a long day's walk away. You might be on another planet, the only survivor of a crashed spacecraft. Stranded. Alone.

Another of my favorite winter places is as alive as White Sands is dead. It's called Bosque del Apache and the time to be there is a January dawn, after an arctic cold front has driven migratory waterfowl out of their feeding places in the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Colorado.

When I first saw the place, U.S. Highway 85 ran right beside it, following the Rio Grande southward en route to Mexico City. The "Woods of the Apaches" had always been on the travel route of many besides the birds who make it their way station. Before the Spanish came through it in the sixteenth century, Indian trails had crossed here. The Mescalero Apaches used it regularly as a camping place and gave it its name. It was the route of the Camino Real, the link between Chihuahua and the Spanish outpost at Santa Fe. But no one, Indian, Spanish, Mexican, or American, ever managed to settle here permanently. The river is hospitable upstream and down, flowing between miles of irrigated fields. But here between the San Cristobal Range and the San Mateo Mountains, it withdraws its invitation. The Piro Indians moved in and left a ruined pueblo to mark their failure. The Spanish tried, but only dots on old maps show where their communities died out. San Marcial, the little town that gives the adjoining marshes their name, was built twice and twice erased by devastating spring floods of the Rio Grande. Nothing of those efforts remains except the name. The Mexican government gave all of it — the final land grant before the American occupation — to Antonio Sandoval in the hope he could establish a permanent settlement. He couldn't. Anglo-American settlers established the town of Clyde beside the marshes. A flood swept away all but the foundations. John Chisholm seized it as part of his cattle empire. Finally, during the Great Depression, it fell into the hands of the federal government and became a game refuge. It is now, as it must have been when the Piros built their ill-fated pueblo, the winter home of hundreds of thousands of migratory birds and of most varieties of the mammals of the Rocky Mountain West.

The highway has moved away from the river now, the divided four lanes of Interstate 25 cutting a broad swath through the creosote bush on the slope of the Coyote Hills. But the narrow pavement that was U.S. 85 is still there, used only by bird watchers and the few farmers who get free use of the Bosque land in return for leaving half their crops to feed the wildlife. Grass sprouts through the old road's cracks here and there and nibbles at its margins, nature's reminder that the works of man are transient.

In those black moments just before dawn the silence here is almost total. Traffic on I-25 is light as well as distant, and long moments pass with no sound at all. Then you begin hearing an odd murmur. The river, you think, or perhaps the San Marcial Ditch, which parallels it to carry water to irrigated fields far downstream. But they are a half-mile away. And this isn't the sound of moving water. It is the conversation of birds.

Thousands upon thousands of them awaken in the marshes and under the winter-bare cottonwoods. You distinguish the odd fluting call of sandhill cranes, the shrill note of red-winged blackbirds, the deeper note of geese, and a mixture of sounds of scores of other species. It is a small sound at first, scattered and episodic. But it grows. And about when the sun creates a red glow behind the Oscura Mountains to the east, you hear the sound of wings.

The snow geese are first, rising off the ponds to breakfast in the sorghum fields up the river. Twenty thousand of them, perhaps more, great white birds with black wing tips rising out of the darkness into the rosy reflected light of dawn. They make a sweeping turn, a cloud of wings rising above the cottonwoods. But cloud is the wrong word. They don't form a disorderly blackbird rabble but a kaleidoscope of goose formations, always shifting, but always orderly. The light catches them — white against the tan velvet of the hills. Then they are overhead, line after line, layer above layer of formations, and the sky is filled with the clamor of an infinity of geese.

The Canada geese are overhead now as well, and the great gray shapes of the sandhill cranes in their long, even lines (eleven thousand was the crane count that year) and finally the laggard ducks in a dozen varieties, sometimes in twos, but usually hurrying somewhere in their version of the V formation. I think this is how it must have been when the Mescalero Apaches made their campfires here.

There are autumn places, too.

In the dry and windy spring of 1887, sheep herders let a campfire get out of hand in Big Tesuque Canyon, in the mountains above Tesuque, New Mexico. It burned the slopes of Santa Fe Baldy, Lake Peak, and Aspen Peak. It became so spectacular that authorities in the territorial capital at Santa Fe sent a telegram to the secretary of the interior asking for funds to put the fire out. A wire came back asking for a cost estimate. The estimate was $600. No funds came, and the fire burned through May, June, and July, stopping at the timberline for lack of fuel but crossing the high passes into Holy Ghost Canyon and then across Pecos Baldy and into the Las Vegas Range. There, helped by the rains of August, a timberman providing ties for the railroad took in a crew and put out the fire.

You can still find fire-killed logs left by that blaze in the Pecos Wilderness Area. When fir and spruce are burned away, meadows form in the ashes — first grasses, then perennial bushes, and finally aspen. The aspen stand until they are crowded out by the conifers moving in again to recapture the mountain. The healing of that great 1887 burn is approaching that final stage now. The world's premier aspen forest still stands on the slopes of Lake, Aspen, and Tesuque peaks. When autumn arrives here, the gold of aspen dazzles the mind.

Starting in late September, the great splash of yellow is visible from Interstate Highway 25 as far away as the top of La Bajada, more than twenty miles south of Santa Fe and at least thirty miles from those three mountains. The road leading to the Santa Fe ski basin cuts just below the old burn. You can park where it crosses Tesuque Creek. Walk up the slope two hundred yards and you can be, as D.H. Lawrence put it, "liberated from modern civilization."

You are immersed in a world of white, black, and yellow, and the dazzling yellow overpowers you. The ground beneath you is a mat of fallen aspen leaves — a uniform bright gold. Above you, the sunlit roof of unfallen leaves is an even brighter yellow. Look right or left, behind you or straight ahead, and you look into a maze of straight white aspen trunks, their chalky bark punctuated with black scarring. On the still day, the only motion is an occasional leaf fluttering downward. But even on the stillest day, enough air moves to make its music in the trees. If you take time to listen, you can always hear an aspen forest talking.

There are other places (and times) engraved in the memory. One is a windless twilight where the Rio Grande has sliced its spectacular gorge through the sagebrush flats west of Taos. The river is invisible here, the top of its narrow canyon hidden behind a fold of the prairie, but you hear its voice. Seven hundred feet below you, where the spring runoff is raging and booming over polished basalt boulders, the sound would be deafening. Standing here in the sagebrush, your ears detect only a murmur seeming to come from beneath your feet, as if the earth were muttering in its sleep.

Then there is the volcanic ray that wanders like the Great Wall of China southward from Ship Rock. Navajo Route 33 cuts through this thin stone barrier en route to Red Rock, making access to it easy for those of us who enjoy such geological oddities and lonely places. The molten magma squeezed up through the cracked earth is thirty or forty feet high but only about three feet thick. A million years of frost and heat have cracked it, and chunks have fallen out. On the day I most like to remember, the gusting wind was fluting through these little windows. The wind was the advance guard of a thunderstorm sweeping eastward out of Arizona. It bombarded Beautiful Mountain with lightning and sent dust devils skittering across the prairie. Down the wall to the north, the core of old Ship Rock volcano rose a thousand feet against the sky, like a free-form version of a Gothic cathedral. Gothic, too, was the color — the stone almost as black as the ominous sky and, balanced on the wind just over the wall, a red-tailed hawk hunting a rodent to kill.

I would want it to look exactly like this if I were illustrating the deeds done by Monster Slayer here in the time of Navajo myth. Monster Slayer, climbing the vertical stone of Ship Rock toward the nest of the Winged Monsters to kill them and make this landscape safe for the Navajos. Monster Slayer, at the nest, teaching the Monsters' chicks to become the eagle and the owl. Monster Slayer rescued from his impossible perch by the sacred Spider Woman.

The list of such places could go on and on: The red stone village of Zuni on Shalako night — reverently playing host to the towering Messenger Birds and the Council of the Gods and feeding thousands of curious visitors on mutton stew and canned peaches. The low sandstone cliff along Dinebito Wash, decorated with a thousand yards of Anasazi pictographs that tell me things I can't quite understand. The long pool in the San Juan below Navajo Dam, at day's end when your legs are cold in your waders. Just as you realize it is too dark to see your lure the trout begin rising all around you, dorsal fins sliding across the current, making sudden splashes as they feed on whatever insect is hatching.

Too dark, but there is always tomorrow. Fishing offers infinite opportunities for hope. Just as our country — Barney's and mine and yours — still offers silent, empty places that revive the spirit.

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Remembered Places
text and photographs (pp. 203-233) from
Hillerman Country by Tony and Barney Hillerman.
Copyright 1991 Tony Hillerman.
Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
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