by Patrick Branyan
Nearly six weeks ago we put the rear seats down and loaded up the passenger half of the Outback with some stuff and left a driver side corridor open for our semi-Siberian husky, Sacha. We jumped in and headed for Las Cruces and a little Airbnb casita in the town’s Mesquite Historic District, nearly 600 miles away. It was midmorning.
The car has a turbo, and I enjoyed punching it and blowing by the old pickups on the 80 mile two lane milk run to Abilene. I especially like it when Dahna says, “Oh just stop.” But, I ease up a little when she says, “You’re starting to scare me with this thing.” Sometimes I scare myself. We got up on I-20 West, and I set the cruise to 83 somewhere out of town, pushing the new speed limits a little.
Texas is pretty good about letting you kill yourself if you want to, and the desert was really flying by. It didn’t look that way, of course, because there’s not much in the desert to fly by. It just seems to float by no matter your speed, but we got there pretty fast by daydreaming along with the iPod. We pulled up to the casita (emphasis on the ‘ita’) in the late afternoon and got out fairly quickly thanks to the Outback’s great seats. Sacha hit the thin L-shaped strip of grass that led from the front and went down the side street, marking her new digs.
Mesquite Historic District Casita
The living room was fully occupied by a nice, dog-scratched sleigh queen bed that we covered with one of our old blankets to protect it from Sacha’s dogginess. We used pillows as bolsters and never sat in the chair. The bath was just fine with a powerful shower and its pretty talavera tile basin. The kitchen was too small for a table but there was a bar, sized just for two, facing a wall with a small window that looked out over Mesquite Street. There was a nifty private patio in back with a table under an umbrella and Sacha, lying underfoot, kept watch while we talked out there with our bourbon.
Klein Park, The View From Our Casita
It was great little place and it faced a small park that was in almost constant use by kids either singly or in groups of friends or in teams coached by their parents, everybody hustling. When I was a kid playing sports I never thought about the adults watching over us. I had no idea how much pleasure they took just sitting up in the stands or out on the sidelines. We spent a lot of time on the front porch watching those neighborhood kids play.
So, once again we’re thinking of selling our Comanche place. Why Las Cruces? Or Grand Junction? Or Grants Pass, Oregon? What’s wrong with Comanche? It’s more a matter of what’s wrong with us. Nothing so much really, but things are changing and have been for some time.
Almost two years to the awful day when Dahna lost her best friend Patty to a cerebral hemorrhage, she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She’d been a little late in getting her annual mammogram but, spurred on by survivor Andrea Mitchell nagging her from the TV set, she finally went in. But, she was three full months overdue. This was in October of 2011.
Looking East from our Casita – The Organ Mountains
Just after the biopsy came back, we sat with her radiologist who lit up the offending mammogram right beside its clear, unthreatening predecessor taken in 2010. This anxiety-ridden lady wanted us to know that she didn’t miss anything on the earlier one. She hadn’t. The thing is, triple-negative is a very aggressive type of breast cancer, and that’s what ground a dirty boot heel into the wound. Not every dark cloud has a silver lining, but this one did, somehow.
Chemotherapy drugs are fierce hunters of fast growing cells and triple-negative cells are about as fast as they come. Speedy little killers. But the poisonous drugs love to seek out and kill the rat bastards, in particular, with special glee. The infusions got there just in time before the berserkers broke loose and went wild and took my girl away. Thank you, Andrea.
La Nueva Casita Restaurant, Across From Our Casita
As you should know, and rue, Andrea married “über Republican” Alan Greenspan, a vastly over-rated little gnome who’s still deservedly exiled in Ayn Randland. Personally, I’d rather she’d married Ben Bradlee, and I know that if she had, she’d be a lot happier today even if he is dead as a hammer. You can see it in her eyes. Well, I’ll always love Andrea Mitchell for saving Dahna’s life even though she needed a little help from me, truth be told.
In what probably stands as the clearest insight of my life, I said, “You’re going to M.D. Anderson.” Dahna said, “That’s too far,” and I said, “I like to drive.” She couldn’t argue with that, and it would have done no good anyway. I was fully prepared to pull the man thing on her, putting my own life seriously at risk, but she folded pretty fast. She seemed distracted, but I wasn’t.
So, it was about 600 miles per round trip from Comanche to Houston where the finest doctors in the world and a beautiful woman named Denita live. She was a distant friend in both time and space when our other great Patty intervened by mentioning to her that Dahna needed help.
Purple Sand Verbena ( Abronia angustifolia)
Denita didn’t hesitate a second and we stayed with her during each of our 20 or more trips for Dahna’s treatments, tests, and surgeries. I guess we stayed at her house at least 50 or more days spread out over nearly a year and a half. She never failed to lift our spirits, and I often think of her voice and laugh, her fine intelligence and good sense. Dahna recently had the chance to repay a little of her kindness and generosity, but it’s a big debt. A lot more than we ever owed to any bank. Denita was paired up tightly with her terrier Buddy and he became our friend too, but now he’s gone.
The diagnosis came just one year after we finally moved into the new house we built—our fourth and last, by God! Actually, I’m sketching one in my mind right now, but a builder will build that one if it ever comes to pass. At 73 and worn out by the last four years, especially the last one, I’m in no shape in any sense to get involved with another massive project involving nail guns or any other loud thing, frankly. Maybe a doghouse or two for Comanche All Pets Alive when lumber prices finally fall from Trump’s foolish Canadian tariff and combined with their Covid distortions. If they ever do fall.
Crazy lumber prices aside, where would we build this last house I’m thinking of? Unlike Comanche, it’d damn sure be close to a major medical center. But how can you have that without having to live in a giant, snarled mess of a big city? Maybe find a town smaller but big enough for practically everything else you need but…near a giant, snarled mess of a big city. Maybe like laid back Las Cruces lying a comfortable 42 miles northwest up I-10 from sprawling El Paso? Why not?
BTW, Las Cruces is one of the few towns that has two interstates (and a river) running through it. You can catch I-25 N/S or I-10 E/W and head for anywhere in the northern half of the western hemisphere if you get the bug, and our world doesn’t end in another civil war. To badly misquote James Baldwin, “The Tweet Next Time.” Even in an apocalyptic Mad Max America, those interstates are handy. Need to bug out and make a run for Canada? Well, off you go on I-25. Prefer to make a last stand at the Alamo? No problem. Your interstate awaits.
Gypsum Phacelia (Phacelia integrifolia)
Assuming our better angels prevail, you can hit I-10 for the big parks in California plus the Tommy burgers in LA; or go east for the swamps and general craziness of Florida after making a fool of yourself in New Orleans. Visit your old friends in Arizona and Texas if they’re no longer mad and maybe make some new ones just in case.
We liked Las Cruces a lot, especially the somewhat mixed, mostly Hispanic old neighborhood where we stayed for five nights. It’s also true that after checking out Grants Pass and Grand Junction several years ago, we also liked them. But, both of them sport a higher cost of living, and we’ve grown accustomed to the luxuries of our upper lower class income. We decided that Oregon is beautiful and a wonderful place to visit, but we’re more comfortable in the dry desert. Desert southwest.
Organ Mountains East of Las Cruces
Grand Junction is a neat high desert town except for the fact that some maniac is installing traffic rotaries all over the place, enough to make you dizzy. Spin out of one then suddenly there’s another up ahead, and you go, “Ah, shit!” We checked it out because it’s ideally positioned for travel all throughout the American West, which is the best as Jim Morrison said. And, you can easily head out from there to points east if you have a mind to once you get over the Divide. It’s got a VA hospital which is just peachy for me, in general, but we both might need that big city medical center at some point, and Denver is too far away.
First, Comanche, to repeat, is too far from the kind of medical services we’ll need soon and, second, our little 20 acre place ain’t so little when you limp into your 70’s with bad backs, knees and aching feet. We make a little on our hay and pecans but the place is far too small to invest in the harvesting equipment, so we hire others to do most of that work, a profit killer. Still, it’s getting harder to keep up just on the maintenance with entropy and climate change always poised to unravel everything.
There’s a lot of work to do before we sell, about a year’s worth—much of it we could have already done in this last stupefying year. But, we didn’t do much at all the whole time. Before that we travelled extensively, and the place frayed a little around the edges in our absence. Hard to move. Hard to stay. It used to be a lot easier back in the long gone days of the old green van. Especially since practically everything we owned was in the old green van.
We’ve always loved New Mexico, its adobe architecture; the vigas, the gentle curves and the thought of cool Saltillo tiles under your bare feet in summer. A long time ago out in the high desert of southern Utah I helped carry the long pine vigas for a new adobe house some friends from Santa Fe were building. It took about seven of us with the monster vigas on our shoulders walking carefully in line to get them from the pile to the house a hundred yards away. Every time the guy in front or back stepped into a little hole, you’d catch half the weight of his load. You’d be surprised how an uncomfortable 150 lb. point load on your shoulder can crush you into the ground when it suddenly, and painfully, jumps to 225 lbs. The yelps sounded a little like a flute.
Mesa Pepperwort (Lepidium alyssoides)
The house was sited on the remote south canyon rim of Lisbon Valley, and there never was a more stunning view anywhere. Vast Disappointment Valley is in sight reaching out way, way out there below the La Sals. Little Indian box canyon lies just to its east. Zane Grey was reputed to have camped nearby when he was inspired to write Riders of the Purple Sage. But, our friends abandoned the house before it was finished, and we lost touch. The last time Dahna and I went out there, the thick adobe walls, exposed to the elements, had slumped to the ground. It’s just one of the sad things that can happen when something big changes in good peoples’ lives.
On our first full day in Las Cruces we went to the Chamber of Commerce and got a terrific driving map of the town and surrounding area. With the town in the middle, it included all the places of interest from Radium Springs to the north to Anthony in the south at the state line with Texas. Just across the line, El Paso has that big medical center, including a VA hospital. Las Cruces itself has small VA clinic and a serviceable, mid-sized medical center. It sits east of town in the desert as it rises up to the craggy Organ Mountains further out.
Go over the mountain pass and you come to famed White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base producing its share of veterans. It’s not so close, but the drive is scenic and I like coming down mountains onto a flat desert expanse. Something nice about it. It’s roomy.
White Sands National Park
White Sands itself was a little disorienting. For a couple of Texans used to the oily brown beaches of the Gulf, blinding white sand didn’t make sense. And, the warm white stuff should have been ice cold to a Siberian husky’s confused genes. She stepped on it a little gingerly at first. There wasn’t much to sniff, and she looked at me with a puzzled look the way dogs do. Sledding down the dunes on plastic seems to be a big thing, and we watched a young Asian couple awkwardly give it a shot. I think it was one of those, ‘when in Rome’ things for them.
Sacha, On You Husky!
Gypsum Sledding, Before the Rain
Through four full days, we drove out a tank of gas moving slow through and around town looking at the inner neighborhoods. There was plenty of attractive acreage of “ranchette” size too, a couple acres, but we really liked where we were staying by the park in town. It was nice sitting still on the porch watching all the young people walking by with their dogs or their lovers, the happy kids, and the bicycle cops practicing their maneuvers through a gymkhana-style obstacle course there in the park. We were like a couple of weathered rocks in a lively trout stream.
Softball Practice, Klein Park
Las Cruces seemed to check all the boxes we could think of for a good place to live out your latter days. With the pandemic concerns, we weren’t as free as could be to really hit the eateries, but we did get some fairly good Mexican food. It’s a city of a little over 100,000; large enough for just about everything you could need. In any event, El Paso has it or you probably don’t need it.
It is a clean town, seemingly well-managed and everyone we met spoke fondly of it. There were no discernible rush hour traffic jams, just easy driving all day. The Rio Grande runs just to the city’s west when it has water in it. A lot of its water is diverted for agriculture, mostly for pecan orchards as far as we could tell. Some of them were extensively flooded with water from the river. I’d describe its exposed bed as “puddled.”
Our little pecan orchard is also flooded at the moment because we catch the water that runs around a huge pond when it can’t hold the floods of a 900 acre watershed. It’s a good thing until it isn’t. Right now it isn’t to say the least. We were told once by an expert that it takes 14 gallons of water to grow a single pecan, and that might make you wonder why the hell they’re growing them in the frickin’ desert around Las Cruces.
The Mighty Rio Grande (Greatly reduced flow due to Crop Irrigation on the Corridor) and Drought
Standing on the bank of the mostly dry riverbed of the Rio Grande, I wondered about that myself. The lonely snowy egret on the other side didn’t have much to do, but some swallows were swooping around, probably gathering a little mud for their nests. There was plenty of that and plenty of things I’ll never quite get. We were close to a dam on that river, and it was dry on both sides. I wish I could give it a few acre feet of water off my place right now. No charge. If we move there, maybe I’ll understand that famous river a little better.
Snowy Egret in Search of Water, Leasburg Dam State Park
We were already in a good mood the morning we packed the car to leave. We liked Las Cruces a lot and were comfortable there. It seemed to have everything we wanted and needed, Mick Jagger aside. We were thinking, ‘Yeah, let’s move here when we’re ready.’ We were just about to hop in the car and head home when a tall masked man stopped, at a very safe distance from our unmasked selves, to chat for a few minutes. When it came out that we were thinking hard about moving there, Frank offered to help.
Frank and his husband Paul have lived in Las Cruces a little over 30 years. How they got there from growing up in the Midwest reads like a mixture of reason and chance, the kind of thing that makes for a good story with good outcomes. They met about 40 years ago working at the then newly-created Chicago Board Options Exchange as market makers in stock options. Speaking as a guy who bought defunct Tellabs (and GM, moments before it zeroed out), instead of Apple, the thought of what they were doing gives me a little tremor of residual fear.
Paul & Frank Celebrating Their New Home
I’m guessing, but I think they must have been pretty good Masters of the Universe because they got out early enough and lived a number of interesting lives since with a pretty high degree of freedom. Most of the people I know like that are the kind you love to sit up with past midnight, pouring out a good supply of dry reds and aspirin for later. Both, like us, had parents to care for; Paul’s in Florida and Frank’s in Arizona, close to Phoenix, whose relative proximity led ultimately to their living in Las Cruces.
On their long ago first day visiting the town, they exited the freeway and drove around forever looking for a restaurant, a memory that amazes them even today considering how many there were. I can’t say how many times that’s happened to us too in who knows how many strange towns we’ve pulled into. Imagine all the people in all the cars meandering around all the towns in all the world looking for a damn restaurant and, in desperation, finding themselves parked in front of an equivalent, if not an actual, Waffle House. Been there. Now, of course, you can locate any restaurant in minutes with your wi-fi mobile phone. Seconds, if you’re a kid.
Paul, practically on a lark, ended up working for IBM for five good years after accepting an invitation to a short internship on the basis of, “Sure, Why not?” Frank, meanwhile on another lark, decided to terrorize sailors on U.S. Navy warships by teaching them math. He’d taught for years at high school and college levels. The closest I’ve ever came to suicide was before a calculus final. Driving to class that day, I thought if only that oncoming pickup would swerve a little…
Frank’s civilian tour ended because of the 911 attacks which ended a lot of good things. Not long after that the couple ended up in Florida for a few years helping Paul’s parents, the way it’s supposed to go. Then back to Las Cruces where they bought another house, then traded it in on a Northwood Nash RV trailer and hit the road full time for about seven years, traveling the country. BTW, Northwood made our Arctic Fox, and I recommend them. I bet they could write a couple of books just about their life on the road.
Rabbitfoot Grass (Polypogon monospeliensis), Rio Grande at Leasburg Dam State Park
Occasionally, they’d park the RV in a Las Cruces RV park and hang around awhile, thinking over their long range plans. One day, Frank found a lot in the Mesquite Historic District oriented a few degrees east of south for solar. They bought it and sat on it awhile thinking about the design of a new home to build with a carefully vetted builder that could contribute to their ideas and execute them properly. On the functional side it had to be very efficient, incorporating solar, and modern, but aesthetically it had to adhere to that of the neighborhood’s quiet and lovely low slung adobe architecture.
I know all this because when we met Frank, we exchanged our info, again at a safe distance. Since then, both of them have generously sent PDF files of pertinent building codes and a biographical compilation of the property’s past owners plus themselves. Paul and Frank have given talks at nearby New Mexico State University about the beautiful and super efficient house they built. They’ve also been written up in several of the town’s newspapers.
A Slice of Paul & Frank’s Xeriscaped Yard
You know what? If you get out of the house and go down the road a bit, you’re liable to have a little brush with history. I remember back in Houston when I first got my driver’s license and found myself at 15 years old sitting out by the pool illegally drinking beer with the recently late, and lamented, B.J. Thomas. I was there with a friend and his older brother who knew him. I had to travel there. A couple of years later, he and his Triumphs played at my senior prom.
When Dahna was five her parents took her and her brother and sister to Magnolia Gardens, a small country music venue way up north of Houston. It was one of the stops of the Louisiana Hayride circuit. One of the singers picked cute little Dahna up and walked her around on his shoulders. Then he took her for a ride in his Cadillac convertible around the parking lot. That guy, back in 1955, was Elvis when he was just becoming king. Dahna has a funny way of describing that shoulder ride, but I won’t go into it here. The point is that on that day, they didn’t just lie around the house like most people do. They got out in the car and met royalty.
So, we threw some stuff in our car and went off to Las Cruces and had another brush with history. In 2013, the same year Paul and Frank moved into that new house, they stood at the head of a line early one morning to become the first same sex couple to be issued a marriage license in New Mexico.
Every now and then something really good happens in this poor country, but it rarely comes without a fight. In the streets and in the legislatures and the courts. But sometimes it happens. John Lewises’ good trouble, then good law, and then a better country for us all to live in. This little blog is called Trail Writers and it doesn’t matter too much, but there are trail blazers out there and they count for a helluva lot, everything really. This country “wouldn’t be squat” without them.
We plan to go back in the Fall assuming the Spring flooding eventually lets up and we’re not washed out to sea. We got a pretty good lay of the land during our trip but missed a lot too. We barely scratched the surface of the good Mexican food available, never really looked for a prized cafe for a late night breakfast. We really need to spend a few hours walking around the university campus and see what it and other educational and cultural organizations have to offer and think about what we might have to offer in return. How we could contribute to a new desert hometown.
Well, we have a few months to read a lot more about Old Mesilla and all the other historic places in and around Las Cruces. We’ll spend more time there when we go back for all that and the chance to firm up our plans a little. High on the list is the possibility of getting to know Frank and Paul better, wine or no wine. It was a stroke of serendipitous good luck that Frank decided to say, “Hello in there,” as he walked by. Well, it wasn’t all luck. We travel a lot if you know what I mean.