by Pat Branyan
It was pitch black when I woke up and reached over to the night table for my trusty old Timex. It lit up blue when I pressed the stem, and I tried to focus on the dial but I had to look through six hours of sleep. “5:15 AM,” it said when the little black hands appeared out of the fog. I let out a little exploratory cough but Dahna didn’t move, so I got up. I put a few things on in the dark, walked into the living area and punched a couple of buttons on the thermostat. The propane furnace came to life, and then I punched another one for the coffee, sat down and waited with Sacha.
The trailer was getting toasty when the cell phone’s weird alarm went off next to Dahna’s head about 15 minutes later. I always let this happen on travel day because I prefer not to get cussed out that early. However, I don’t mind the cell phone getting it good and hard. Her dad was the sweetest man ever born, but he was a sailor and I guess that’s where she gets it from. Anyway, she generally hits the “snooze” like a prizefighter and heads for that in-between state that’s safer to wake her up from. I call her when the coffee’s ready and so begins another travel day.
Our next stop was Rockhound State Park just south of Deming, NM. We both love New Mexico having tramped over a good bit of it in our 47 years together. We especially like the Ruidoso area and nearly bought land there back in ’72. Unfortunately, I had long hair and a beard and the realtors (a seedy lot) wouldn’t talk to me. The next day in a rest area near Socorro, Dahna cut my hair, and I whacked off my beard.
Right after New Years, a Mormon United Farm agent was pleased to take us way out on Summit Point in the high desert (7200’) of southeastern Utah. We bought a remote 80 acres which was half of the homestead of a lovely Dustbowl couple originally from Kansas. We had to walk a quarter mile through two feet of snow to look at the place, and the poor agent was a little too short for the struggle.
Lark Bunting, breeding male. These little sparrows winter in southern New Mexico and southward. This is a first sighting for us. In spring they head north to the prairies. Interestingly, the females are pretty fickle in mate selection from year to year. One year she might prefer a strong beak in her mate, while the next, she might go for more distinctive wing bars. What’s a fella to do? Genetically, it does keep the male traits from becoming exaggerated.
I looked out at the beautiful winter scene of thick piñon pine and Juniper stands ringing the blanketed wheat and pinto bean fields. The Blue Mountains were snow covered and looked close enough to touch through the sharp air. When the agent finally caught his breath and I could not hear a single sound, I said, “I’ll take it.”
I’m not sure how he felt a few months later when he saw us in Monticello, long hair and beard somewhat restored. But, we were a local sensation. Farmers and ranchers traveled miles out to see us almost every day, and after awhile they thought of us fondly as “their hippies” from Texas. One day the famous Rigby Wright, sheriff of San Juan County rolled out to visit. He accepted Dahna’s dinner invitation, and over coffee the subject of marijuana came up. I asked him, “Does it grow up here?” He answered me with a big grin, “I was going to ask you.” We’ve always felt at home in the desert after living there.
The Little Florida Mountains at Sunset -Another “Sky Island” in the Chihuahuan Desert
Through the years we have driven past Deming on the interstate but never visited. This time we drove right through it to get to the campsite tucked up in the base of the Little Florida Mountains. We could see the park about two miles away by looking up a little, and I muttered, “Rough as a cob.” The mountain desert certainly is rough, brandishing its violent volcanic past with rugged cliffs and boulders and a spiky flora of cacti and mesquite. The fauna is on the bitey side with a healthy complement of cougars, bobcats and rattlers. It’s a good idea to keep your eyes open and watch out. And your little dog too.
Curved Bill Thrasher – His long curved bill is used to sweep through leaf litter on the ground to find bugs, often flipping dried cow patties to get the bugs underneath and washing them down with cactus fruits. This thrasher was singing his heart out from the top of an ocotillo at sunset. Their song and mimicry of other birds is akin to the mockingbird’s song.
The park host called her husband, and he soon met us on his John Deere Gator. He led us to our spot, an easy back in, and waited to help out if necessary. Naturally, I quickly made a mess of it. I was embarrassed, of course, but embarrassment is an old friend of mine. When I got out of the truck, I stuck my hand out and laughed, “Piece of cake. I’m Pat.” He laughed too and we shook hands. “I’m Orville,” he said. Every fiber of my being wanted to ask him, “Oh? How’s Wilbur?” Alas, maturity is finally creeping up on me so I just said, “Glad to meet you Orville.”
We had a nice chat, and then we got down to the business of setting up in his fine park.
View From Our Campsite – Yes, that is prickly pear in the foreground. Most of the greenery is prickly pear and creosote bush. There are a number of trails winding through the cactus to the top of the mountain, but be careful not to trip, fall and roll down slope.
Apart from its scenic wonders, there are a couple of things that distinguish this park from most others. The small camping fee entitles you to access three other nearby state parks. One of them, City of Rocks S.P. consists of igneous rock originally created by vulcanism and then slowly carved out by erosion over millions of years into something like giant figurines, all closely packed together and standing up tall. The big formations dot the park and are connected to each other by a mini canyon maze of pathways, hence the “city” in the park’s name.
This arrangement creates numerous discrete camping spots for day use, each delineated by the high rock walls. We visited on Easter Sunday, and it became a city of picnickers since what looked like half the populations of Deming and Silver City filled every nook and cranny of the place. A happy hullabaloo out in the desert.
City of Rocks State Park
The other unique thing about Rockhound is the encouragement of the campers to actually rockhound a little. Each person is allowed to take home up to 15 pounds of rocks in a complete departure from the environmental strictures we’ve always known in the parks. We’re not rock collectors, but for those that are, the 15 pound weight limit makes sense. First, the policy makes other rocks available for the folks that follow. Secondly, an old 50s movie provides a cautionary tale for greedy rockhounds. Maybe you’ve seen the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz classic comedy, “The Long Long Trailer.” The salient point is that souvenir rocks get real heavy in an uphill hurry as Lucy and Desi found out the hard way.
Scaled Quail, or “Cotton-Tops” scurry around the campground, along with Gambel’s Quail.
(Female) Gambel’s Quail are mostly ground birds, but we also saw them perched in small shrubs calling.
The rocks you can find there are pretty cool. Black perlite, quartz and jasper samples are found plus geodes and thunder eggs with a little effort. I admit that after a full year of geology, I never heard of thunder eggs. Either that or I forgot…whatever. Anyway, these are rocks that have a solid mineral core of varying crystals, unlike the semi hollow geodes. They got their name from some Oregonian Indians who used to find them strewn thereabouts. The lore goes that occasionally the gods atop Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood would generate thunderstorms by getting mad at each other and pelting each other with eggs laid by the thunderbirds.
It doesn’t seem so far fetched to me, speaking as one whose roof once got hailed out in a rotating Texas thunderstorm. Fortunately, I had Acts of the Gods insurance. They’re quirky and you can never be too prepared when they get all up in a big snit with each other.
Another park in the “free” network of passes is Pancho Villa State Park about 30 miles south of Rockhound. It lies near dusty Columbus, NM on the Mexican-U.S. border. Its claim to fame rests on its history as the only American town attacked by Mexicans, specifically Pancho Villa, during its ten year Revolutionary War (1910-1920), and the last in the continental U.S. by any foreign army to date. In the spring of 1916, Villa had been defeated by reactionary elements, and his army was dispersed, demoralized, and needed arms and supplies.
Desert In Bloom
Looking across the border, Columbus seemed like a good bet. Unfortunately for Villa, his reconnaissance team’s count of the troops manning the American calvary garrison in town was woefully inadequate. He invaded early in the morning, shooting up, burning and looting the place until the surprised troops and townspeople got it together to return fire. He managed to capture the arms and supplies he needed but had to hotfoot it back over the border pronto to try to outrun the enraged American calvary men pursuing with blood in their eyes.
President Wilson, miffed to the max, ordered Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing to basically bring him the head of Villa in what was called the Punitive Expedition. Even though Pershing deployed trucks and aircraft for the first time in American warfare, he failed to deliver Pancho. He did manage, with a young and eager George Patton, to bloody what was left of Villa’s army, but the mission was not a success because Pancho escaped and Wilson’s personal vendetta remained unsatisfied. WWI interrupted the futile pursuit, and it was in Europe where Blackjack found his glory, such that it was.
Pancho Villa was assassinated Bonnie and Clyde style while still a young man, although it was a happy short life. He was reportedly married dozens of times without the inconveniences of divorce dogging him. He was after all a general and, well…rank has its privileges.
Jackrabbit on a Lazy Desert Day
Monday, our last day there, was a work day in Deming. First we needed to cash a check. We had a little fun with the late middle aged teller through the long process. I had to provide a lot of ID plus sign a number of documents and even leave a thumbprint. We were in a good mood though, and so was she and pretty soon all three of us were laughing about how stupid it all was. Gaiety aside, she was a pro and continually admonished the fidgety people waiting in line behind us that, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Next was a quick lunch in the truck from a super fastidious kid working alone at the Subway. Since we had Sacha with us I stayed with her while Dahna went inside to order a couple of sandwiches. After nearly 30 minutes I was about to go looking for her when she came out with the food. Subways aren’t great but they’ll always do in a pinch. These two six inchers were by far the best we ever had because, as Dahna told me, the kid was actually a born-to-be chef, and he constructed the sandwiches as though they were entrees in a Michelin 3 star French restaurant. Of course, by the time we got them we we hungry enough to eat the caliche off a Hill Country road cut.
Cactus Wren – Before you see the Cactus Wren, you might see their nests in low brush and cactus – large football-shaped affairs made from grass and agave fibers with a small entry hole in one end where they can raise up to three broods in a season.
Finally, there was the laundromat. Ordinarily there’s not much fun in that, but when we pulled up and got out, a strong Latina woman of 35 or so was standing beside her old Tahoe bawling out one of her kids on her cell for not helping with the family’s big wash load. Her hybrid tirade in Spanish and English was a thing of high art and beauty, sprinkled mightily with expletives in both languages. Her voice would swell into a roar then drop to a whispered snarl. I hope that kid of hers grows up to be president. She sure had the mom for it.
We had a fine time in Deming that day, and I think we’ll always think fondly of that somewhat poor, but happy, little town. We drove back out to Rockhound later in the afternoon, had a couple of drinks outside and enjoyed the panoramic desert views and the clean, dry air. We didn’t stay there long because we wanted to spend a little more time with our friends in Phoenix, Tom and Karen West. Still, we hated to leave so quickly and so we put Rockhound and Deming on our lengthening list of places to come back to.
We went to bed early that night and Dahna set the cell alarm for 5:30 AM.
Sacha, NOT on a travel day